Follow @MarkBrownCSTI thought it was a secret the legendary Edward R. Vrdolyak would carry with him to his grave.
But maybe, just maybe, we will finally learn the truth about how “Fast Eddie” managed to deal himself into one of the sweetest lawyer jackpots in U.S. history.
A new federal indictment of the former Chicago political powerhouse has put Vrdolyak’s mysterious payday back in play.
It’s been seven years since I first reported Vrdolyak was inexplicably receiving a multi-million dollar portion of the fees paid to Illinois lawyers for their work on the state’s $9.3 billion settlement with Big Tobacco over the dangers of cigarettes.
Follow @MarkBrownCSTI say inexplicable because his role in the case, if any, was previously unknown until it was revealed in court during his 2009 sentencing on an unrelated matter that Vrdolyak was collecting as much as $30,000 a month from the tobacco settlement in a multi-year payout.
That little aside was quickly forgotten that day in the furor over the hand slap U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur subsequently gave Vrdolyak as punishment — five years probation — for his role in ripping off a medical school in a real estate scheme.
When I reported on the matter a month later, I couldn’t find anybody who could explain what Vrdolyak might have done to earn the money or even who paid him.
My first guess — and still my best guess — is that it had something to do with Stuart Levine, that walking white-collar crime wave whose cooperation with federal authorities helped bring down Vrdolyak the first time and set in motion the prosecution of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But Levine’s lawyer denied it.
Later, after a federal appeals court intervened and Vrdolyak was sent off to serve a proper 10-month prison sentence in the medical school case, I was certain that would be the last we’d ever hear of the tobacco settlement money.
Then a year ago it was revealed federal investigators were still looking at Vrdolyak in connection with an alleged scheme to split his share of the tobacco money with another lawyer, Daniel P. Soso.
The case brought Tuesday is almost too convoluted to explain, which I should point out is typical of the dealmaking in which Vrdolyak was involved during the two decades when he was perhaps the most powerful — and most investigated — political figure in Chicago.
But the gist is that Steve Berman, a Seattle attorney whose law firm was selected in 1996 to represent the state in its lawsuit against tobacco companies, allegedly cut a secret deal to pay them a portion of his legal fees.
At one point, Berman, who has Chicago roots, allegedly agreed to pay them $65 million, although that may have been later reduced when the total payout for all the state’s lawyers was cut significantly.
The indictment says neither Vrdolyak nor Soso were ever authorized by the attorney general to work on the tobacco case, nor did they in fact perform any work.
The selection of Berman’s law firm was made by then-Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan.
As many will recall, Ryan was a longtime friend of Levine, his biggest fundraiser, which is why many have believed he could have influenced Berman’s selection.
But Ryan has always denied that was the case, and the indictment seems to back him up, stating that the agreements to pay Vrdolyak and Soso were concealed from the attorney general.
Vrdolyak, the former Cook County Democratic chairman, certainly would have had many other entry points to exert his influence on Berman’s behalf. Or to make him believe he could.
I don’t really care whether the 78-year-old Vrdolyak goes back to prison. I just want to know how he did it.
Federal prosecutors probably have other ideas.