Politician Morgan Finley, ‘a monument to corruption,’ has died

SHARE Politician Morgan Finley, ‘a monument to corruption,’ has died

Morgan M. Finley in 1974. | Sun-Times file photo

He was “the mayor’s boy.”

As a child, Bud Finley, who came from a poor Irish family, ran errands for Richard J. Daley in their Bridgeport neighborhood. The future mayor would reward him with a quarter.

As an adult, Morgan Finley, who died Tuesday at age 91, lived on South Lowe, five houses down from the mayor. His wife would babysit the Daley children.

On such connections were political careers made, once upon a time in Chicago, and Finley rose through the ranks, first as secretary of Daley’s 11th Ward Democrats, then state senator from Daley’s 9th district — “the mayor’s senator” — then serving as clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, where he met disaster.

“Never take a nickel,” his mentor had advised him. “Just hand ’em your insurance card.”

Finley did not take that sensible advice, and so became the highest-ranking public official swept up in the Operation Incubator probe in the mid-1980s, convicted of racketeering and attempted extortion, “a monument to corruption” in the words of the judge who sent him to prison.

Morgan Martin Finley was born the son of a railroad switchman. For seven years, the slight, red-haired boy was mascot of the White Sox. He later called Bridgeport “the greatest neighborhood in the world.”

He graduated from De La Salle Institute, where he was captain of the lightweight basketball team.

Finley served as a radioman in the Navy for three years. Later, he attended night school at DePaul for two years and then Bryant-Stratton Business College.

After graduating, he was secretary of the 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization for a dozen years. He considered the party “like a religion.”

Eventually, Finley was tapped to run for the state Senate. He won, serving from 1959 to 1966.

A devout Catholic, Finley introduced a bill into the Illinois Senate that would have made it a crime for a woman to give birth out of wedlock, with punishments of up to five years in prison for a second offense. The bill had 13 co-sponsors.

In 1963, he was chief sponsor of a bill to limit public aid, so it would provide birth control only to married women.

Gov. Otto Kerner personally asked that Finley withdraw his bill. He refused.

Finley’s staunch opposition to birth control earned him a spot on the Illinois Birth Control Commission, studying whether unmarried women on public aid should receive birth control from the state.

In 1965, contrary to expectations, he reversed his previous position and recommended that the state fund contraception for unmarried women on relief.

“This is necessary for public aid recipients and for the people of the state of Illinois,” he said.

Some felt that this ruling resulted in the Democrats not slating Finley to run in 1966, but clearly he was still in good standing with the mayor, because the next year he was appointed to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, becoming its chairman in 1971.

He was also a senior vice president at the District National Bank of Chicago, and had a real estate and insurance office.

In late 1974, he was appointed acting clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court after the death of Matthew J. Danaher, age 47, also a resident of the same block as Daley. Danaher was about to be tried, along with two colleagues, on charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and accepting $400,000 in payoffs. The fate of his predecessor might have served as a cautionary tale to some men, but not to Finley.

The clerkship was certainly filled with enticements. Finley oversaw an office that handled $32 million a year in fines, filing fees and court costs, not to mention doling out 1,500 patronage jobs.

He vowed to “do anything that can save the taxpayers money even if it means cutting employees.”

Finley began the practice of maintaining a “hot list” of drivers who had two or more traffic tickets and having their cars towed and held until they paid their fines.

He also had employees answer their phones, “Morgan M. Finley’s office,” and in 1975 instituted a dress code banning blue jeans and requiring men to wear neckties.

(Mike Royko called Finley “the new champion name-dropper in Chicago politics,” counting 16 photos of Finley displayed in 11 rooms at his county offices.)

Also in 1975, he had three computer terminals installed in bond court, so that the prior records of accused criminals could be checked before setting bonds.

Finley was the highest of 16 officials — including four aldermen — swept up in the Operation Incubator sting, where federal “moles” offered bribe money to politicians.

On Dec. 4, 1985, he was being served a stone crab lunch at Lake Point Tower by his friend, Michael Raymond, who handed a wad of money to Finley. Raymond, speaking clearly, for the benefit of the hidden FBI microphones, told Finley, “I got you the rest of the $25,000.”

“For me?” Finley said, pocketing the cash.

At the trial, Assistant U.S. attorney Ira Raphaelson argued that Finley was “a hypocrite, a two-faced man, a man who had a dark side to his life, a man who sold his office.”

A jury took 17 hours to find him guilty on charges of attempted extortion, racketeering conspiracy and interstate travel to aid racketeering.

Eligible for 105 years in prison, Finley was sentenced to 10 and served less than four.

Judge Ilana D. Rovner called him “a monument to corruption.”

Finley was released from prison in 1993. Asked by a reporter in 2012 what he had been doing in the past two decades, he replied, “Nothing.”

Survivors include his wife, Judith; two sons, Patrick and Matthew, and four grandchildren. Another son, James Finley, preceded him in death.

Visitation will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Hallowell & James Funeral Home, 1025 W. 55th St., in Countryside. A funeral mass will be said at 9:45 a.m. Monday at St. John of the Cross Church, 5005 S. Wolf Rd., in Western Springs, preceded by prayer service at 9:15 a.m.

Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika

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