One month before the city elects the next mayor and City Council, members of Chicago’s political class are in a panic over the widening federal corruption investigation of Ald. Edward Burke. No one knows whom to trust. Several mayoral candidates are running for cover. Some confused aldermen sound like actors in a mafia drama where honor is earned by refusing to squeal on colleagues.
The taint of scandal is spreading. By election day — Feb. 26 — corruption could edge past city finances, violence and schools to become the top issue. Voters, if you want to change Chicago’s insular, sometimes criminal political culture, this is your moment.
At the epicenter is Burke, who has ties to many of Chicago’s prominent politicians. Federal prosecutors accuse him of attempting to strong-arm the owners of a Burger King into becoming his legal client, but the investigation is ongoing. He denies wrongdoing. The feds tapped Burke’s phone, listening in on an astounding 9,475 calls over at eight months. They collected documents, hard drives and thumb drives. The feds’ allusions to nine unnamed individuals and 14 unidentified entities surely terrify political Chicago. And what if there are other wires?
Pols uncomfortable about their proximity to Burke also must worry about Ald. Danny Solis, another powerful council member. The Sun-Times reported that Solis secretly recorded conversations with Burke. Wow. If prosecutors wired up one big shot alderman to record another, then Chicago may be in the midst of a major public corruption investigation. Recall that back in the 1990s, Operation Silver Shovel led to indictments against six aldermen.
It would be nice if public officials would observe the unfolding action and root for a political cleanse. Chicago’s sordid tradition of insider dealings erodes public trust as it costs taxpayers money. So far, though, much of the reaction is defensive and cynical. Some aldermen took the news of Solis wearing a wire as an affront to the Chicago political version of omerta, the mafia loyalty oath.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer said he would never stoop to secretly recording fellow aldermen. “You would like to think someone would just take their punishment … and not try to spread it to other people,” Sawyer said. Ald. Michelle Harris said she thought council members should treat each other like “family” (as opposed to a mafia Family, we presume). Ald. Matt O’Shea sounded like a tough guy, or a comedian: “Where I come from, if you wear a wire someone’s going to kick your ass.”
Do aldermen have a code of silence? Shouldn’t they step forward to cooperate with investigators, just as they encourage their constituents to help cops fight crime?
At least Ald. Scott Waguespack understands what’s afoot: This scandal can become the rallying point to fix Chicago’s political culture. “I don’t care what those two went after each other on,” he said of Burke and Solis, “but it’s obviously something so bad that the council can no longer wait for reforms we’ve been pushing.”
Meanwhile, mayoral candidates with ties to Burke or Solis are scurrying for cover. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who raised $116,000 at a fundraiser at Burke’s house, insists she hardly knows the guy. She has tried to downplay her connection to Burke’s son Edward Jr. landing a $100,000 county job. On Wednesday, though, she acknowledged that she had met with Burke the senior about hiring his son. The Tribune reported that Burke Jr. was under investigation for misconduct in his previous job at the Cook County sheriff’s office, but Preckwinkle said she hadn’t known about that.
Mayoral hopeful Susana Mendoza has double trouble: She got her political start with Burke’s help, and she’s close to Solis. On Thursday, Mendoza said she would give away nearly $142,000 raised from Solis and a company founded by Patti Solis Doyle, his sister. Mendoza and Preckwinkle, who previously said they would not keep money connected to Burke, are getting hit hard by political opponents over these ties. Mendoza canceled a fundraiser in Washington organized by Solis Doyle.
Where does all this lead? Every day brings more details and a cascade of new suspicions. As pressure builds, candidates will play hot potato with the accusations. By election day, Burke and Solis may be the loneliest people in Chicago.
For Chicagoans, the details of who’s tied to whom probably will sway votes. But the more important question is which candidates, if elected, could be trusted to lead Chicago through this scandal and provide honest, accountable governance.
This article provided by NewsEdge.