For about as long as there has been a Chicago, there has been a Crime and Corruption Caucus in the City Council, and it’s still going strong.
This year’s nominees for membership include:
Ald. Willie Cochran, who is awaiting trial on charges of hitting up businessmen for bribes and looting a charitable fund.
Ald. Ricardo Munoz, who was charged Wednesday with physically assaulting his wife on New Year’s Eve.
And Ald. Ed Burke, who was charged Thursday with extortion, a favorite old-school practice of the Corruption Caucus.
Since 1972, 29 other aldermen have been convicted of crimes related to their official duties. An impressive feat, unmatched in any other town. A study released last spring by the University of Illinois at Chicago declared Chicago the “most corrupt” city in America.
What, we might ask, is going on?
It’s not as if Chicago’s public schools teach bribery, rigged contracts, double-billing and ghost payrolling.
What’s going on — and on and on — is Chicago history and culture.
Chicago has always been a “city on the make,” in Nelson Algren’s classic description, a town thrown together in a heartbeat for the sole purpose of making money. And the unofficial motto has always been Ubi Est Mea? — Where’s mine? — to quote another classic line, this one by Mike Royko.
Nowhere has that culture of avarice been more distilled than in the City Council, from Mike “Hinky Dink” Kenna in the early 20th Century to Paddy Bauler in the 1940s to Tom Keane in the 1970s to Louis Farina in the 1980s to Fred Roti in the 1990s to Ed Vrdolyak in the 2000s.
We tell ourselves those boodling days are ancient history, like the stockyards. Chicagoans make their money now with cleaner hands, figuratively and literally, and kayak on a river that’s no longer an open sewer. So enough with the cliches.
Except for this: Those 29 aldermen convicted in modern times. With three more possibly on the way.
Cochran is accused of run-of-the-mill aldermanic corruption. The feds say he squeezed businessmen for bribes and stole tens of thousands of dollars from a ward organization charity to pay for his daughter’s tuition and gambling at casinos. His trial is set for June 3.
The Munoz case, by contrast, is just sad. We have admired the guy for the way he gave up gangs and guns as a teenager, earned a college degree and went on to become one of the Council’s more effective aldermen. We also respected the way he openly admitted in 2010, just months before he faced re-election, that he was a recovering alcoholic.
Now Munoz has been charged with domestic battery, possibly alcohol-related. There is no hint of public corruption here, but deep personal failing.
And then there is Burke, the big fish in this latest batch of aldermen in hot water. The criminal charges filed against Burke are a really big deal because  he’s Chicago’s most powerful alderman,  he’s among the last working products of the old Democratic Machine, and  betting people have been laying odds for years as to if and when he’ll go to prison.
According to the federal complaint against Burke, he pressured Burger King executives to hire his law firm to do Chicago-area tax appeals work in return for clearing the way for the remodeling of a Burger King restaurant in his ward. There are also indications that further charges might be coming.
The federal charges get to the heart of an endless debate about the nuances of how Chicago politicians get rich, especially ones like Burke and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan who run law firms that do property tax appeals work.
One school of thought says the smart ones just hand out their business cards, knowing that enterprising people are eager to make friends of powerful politicians. Clients magically flock to them. In political circles, it’s called “honest graft.”
When Donald Trump hired Burke’s law firm to do tax appeal work for Trump Tower Chicago, for example, the future president undoubtedly understood — nobody had to spell it out — the value of getting on the good side of a powerful alderman who’s tight with the county assessor.
A competing school of thought says very few politicians are that smart or patient, so they almost always become more proactive. More so than we might imagine, that is to say, even the smart ones put on the squeeze.
We should note, right here, that the evidence against Burke reportedly includes recorded phone calls.
If the Chicago City Council, after all these years, continues to tolerate a culture of casual corruption — and it does — the best cure is a merciless U.S. attorney’s office.
Bring it on.
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