Zeke Emanuel wrote a book he called, “Brothers Emanuel” about the family of overachievers that produced an oncologist/bioethicist, a Hollywood super-agent and the former congressman-turned-White House chief of staff now serving as mayor of Chicago.
“Brothers Siskel” could be a sequel to that story.
Not only is Chicago’s newly appointed Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel the nephew of famed movie critic Gene Siskel. His oldest brother Jon won an Emmy award for his documentary about 9/11. His middle brother Charlie was nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.”
Ed Siskel is no slouch, either.
He has clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, prosecuted newspaper publisher Conrad Black, served in the highest levels of the U.S. Justice Department and as deputy White House counsel under now former President Barack Obama.
He’s now a partner at WilmerHale, a Washington, D.C., law firm paid nearly $1 million to help guide the city through the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
Ed Siskel fondly recalled going to downtown movie screenings with his famous uncle when the brothers Siskel were growing up. He laughed out loud when asked what was in the water at the Siskels’ North Shore residence.
“We grew up in a household that really valued intellectual curiosity. Our parents were supportive and encouraging of my brothers and I pursuing our passions. Dinner table conversation was very active and intellectually stimulating. We’d talk a lot about current events, but in a way where we as children were encouraged to have strong viewpoints and to speak our minds, but be willing to debate to defend our viewpoint,” said Siskel, 44.
“It was also a household where, from an early age, our parents instilled in us the values of civic engagement and public service and also an appreciation for the arts.”
In three-years at the White House, Siskel helped steer the Obama administration through congressional investigations and other political land mines.
They included the solar panel company known as Solyndra that went belly up after receiving government loans; terrorist attacks on the U.S. Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador and the rocky start of the Affordable Care Act that President Donald Trump has promised to repeal and replace.
“I learned the value of quickly mastering a set of facts and understanding how an investigator would view a set of facts so that you can help inform policymakers in an effective way of responding, cooperating in a thoughtful, responsible way, particularly in circumstances where things can get highly politicized,” Siskel said Tuesday.
“It’s important in any investigation … to have a process that is thorough and rigorous and has real integrity to it. So much depends on your ability to work with the other parties involved. In that case, it was congressional committees. But, it could be inspectors general or the Department of Justice.”
In Chicago, Siskel will be asked to turn an agreement in principle with the Justice Department into a detailed consent decree that culminates in the hiring of a federal monitor to ride herd over the Chicago Police Department.
If Trump chooses not to pursue a consent decree, Siskel’s job will be to help Emanuel enact the police reforms outlined in the Justice Department’s scathing indictment of the Police Department.
The new corporation counsel must deliver the third and elusive final piece of Emanuel’s police accountability overhaul: the appointment of a civilian oversight board that will choose a permanent chief for the newly-created Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
Siskel will also be asked to clear the decks of cases lingering from the Jon Burge torture era and re-establish trust with federal judges who have accused the Law Department of withholding evidence from plaintiffs in civil cases and failing to turn over evidence in a timely manner.
Siskel refused to weigh in on any of those pending controversies. But, his legal colleagues have no doubt about his ability to handle them.
They describe a brilliant, yet unassuming, attorney capable of juggling the hottest of political potatoes with equanimity and humor.
“He’s a terrific choice. He’s a very smart person with great judgment and a wealth of experience. Ed knows how to get his hands around complicated issues and do the right thing. He just sort of stays on an even keel,” said former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, who prosecuted former Gov. George Ryan, said Siskel is “walking into a hornet’s nest” at the Law Department, but is prepared to go from the White House frying pan into Chicago’s political fires.
“This is a guy who’s been around really complex, nettlesome issues. … He’s not a shrinking violet. He’s had some very significant legal experiences at the intersection of the law and politics and high-profile matters,” Collins said.
Former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer tried the Conrad Black case with Siskel and has been a friend ever since.
“Defendants in that case were very well represented. It was a complicated case. There was a lot of media attention. He was put in the spotlight quickly. And it didn’t faze him in the least. He was very calm, very cool, very collected at a time when he didn’t have a lot of trials under his belt. He was really thrown into the deep end,” Cramer said.
“There are some exceptional trial lawyers who come out of 219 [South] Dearborn. There are very few who are very good and humble. Ed is very good and humble. He has no airs about him, even though he easily could. He’s not arrogant. He’s not conceited. And he has a good perspective on the fact that he doesn’t know everything. He’s very open to listening to other people.”
As for the controversy over withholding evidence, Cramer said, “Ed brings kind of a clean slate. He’ll immediately have the respect of the federal judges that the office has had some problems with.”