Political corruption will never be eliminated in Chicago, but some people will tell you nobody ever did more to slow it down than William Witkowski.
Those who are old enough should recognize the names of Witkowski’s investigative targets: Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, powerhouse Ald. Thomas Keane, Attorney General William Scott, Judge Reginald Holzer and John Cardinal Cody.
Others will recognize the lawyers who gained prominence prosecuting them: Jim Thompson, Sam Skinner, Tyrone Fahner, Jeremy Margolis and Scott Turow.
But very few are familiar with the former IRS agent whose extraordinary investigative skills made those cases — and in the process made him a legend in certain circles.
Witkowski died Nov. 13 from complications of multiple sclerosis. He was 74.
Never one to take bows during his lifetime, Witkowski will have to suffer these accolades in silence.
“Bill Witkowski was the single best investigator I have ever known,” said veteran investigative reporter Edward Pound, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times.
I’m quoting Pound here because many people regard him as the single best investigator ever to work in my business, and it takes one to know one.
But everyone who spoke to me about Witkowski offered the same sort of superlative assessment without reservation.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do the prosecutions we did without him,” said Fahner, the prosecutor who convicted Keane and went on to become Illinois Attorney General and later a successful lawyer with Mayer Brown.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the IRS that did most of the heavy lifting on political corruption in Illinois. And in that circle, Witkowski gained a reputation as the alpha dog.
Many recall his unassuming style.
A large man with a flat top brush cut, Witkowski looked more the part of the neighborhood guy he was than anybody’s notion of an IRS agent.
He avoided a suit and tie, typically wearing a short sleeve shirt, wash pants and leather jacket.
The look was intentionally deceiving, as more than one interview subject learned too late after the highly-intelligent Witkowski picked them apart during questioning.
“He had a sixth sense of where to go, what to do and how to find the evidence,” said Joe Duffy, who worked for the IRS alongside Witkowski on Scott’s case before becoming a prosecutor and prominent defense lawyer.
Turow, who convicted Holzer on Witkowski’s evidence before becoming a famous author, recalls this line from former U.S. Attorney Tom Sullivan:
“Every night when I go to bed, I say my prayers and ask, ‘Dear God, please don’t let Bill Witkowski investigate me, because he’d probably find something.'”
Witkowski wanted to tackle only the most difficult and important investigations, which he would doggedly pursue for years as necessary.
His cases were successfully prosecuted, too, with the exception of Cardinal Cody, who died just before charges were expected to be brought in connection with his alleged diversion of church funds.
“I think I had him,” Witkowski said of Cody in a rare interview with the Chicago Tribune upon his retirement in 1994 at age 51. “I was sorry to see him die.”
Many spoke to me of Witkowski’s integrity. He rejected more lucrative job offers to take his talents to the defense side.
“He would not work for ‘kinks,’ ” said Margolis, the prosecutor on the Scott and Cody cases, using Witkowski’s favorite term for corrupt individuals.
Witkowski’s oldest son, Robert, told me the story of his father getting home from a hot dog stand and realizing the counter worker gave him too much change. Witkowski drove right back to return the extra money. It left an impression on the son.
Multiple sclerosis prematurely ended Witkowski’s career when the symptoms made it impossible for him to qualify on the firing range, even though he never carried his gun.
Chicago could have used a few more years of Witkowski chasing “kinks.” I salute him for the years he gave us.