Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) was praising the Lord at a school event Wednesday morning, saying “today is a day truly that God has made because he made us the star of the show,” when federal agents a few miles away were thrusting her center stage into Chicago’s hottest criminal investigation.
While Austin was talking about a school mentoring program, alongside Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Percy Julian High School, FBI agents were raiding her ward office as part of the ongoing political corruption investigations of Chicago aldermen.
With the public raid, Austin, 70, joins the select company of veteran, powerful Chicago aldermen implicated in the investigations.
Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) was indicted in May in a wide-ranging political corruption racketeering case.
Helping the feds build that case was former Ald. Danny Solis, who was implicated in wrongdoing himself by the feds and secretly recorded Burke and others for more than two years by wearing a wire.
After the Sun-Times first reported in January that Solis was wearing a wire, Austin told reporters: “Not about Danny. I might cry. You don’t do that. You just don’t.”
Burke has denied any wrongdoing. Solis has not been charged.
Austin, who is second in seniority on the City Council after Burke, has not been accused of any wrongdoing and did not return phone messages. No one answered the door at her home Wednesday afternoon.
At an unrelated news conference Wednesday afternoon, Lightfoot said she saw no indication at the school event that Austin knew of the search warrant and said it’s always a “shocking development” whenever a public official’s office is raided.
While it’s unclear what prompted the raid, agents came in force and left with boxes of records and at least one computer from the ward office Wednesday afternoon.
A man who asked to be identified only as “Kenny” said he was driving to work about 9:15 a.m., heading west on 111th, when about five cars coming from the opposite direction all pulled U-turns in front of him and parked.
Kenny said he had to stop to let one of the men in the cars cross the street in front of him to Austin’s 34th Ward office at 507 W. 111th, where she shares space with State Sen. Emil Jones III.
“None of their cars were marked. But when you see those cars making that kind of formation in a neighborhood like this, you can tell it’s law enforcement,” Kenny said. “They looked like feds.”
Donyetta Jenkins, who recently purchased the property next door to Austin’s office said nothing seemed out of the ordinary when she first arrived about 12:30 p.m.
Shortly after 1 p.m. though, she went outside and saw a handful of vehicles pull up and several men in suits going inside and carrying boxes out of the office.
“They said they were there to fix the pipes, which seemed silly. I asked again, and they just repeated that they were there for the pipes, and it was clear they didn’t want any more questions,” Jenkins said.
About 1:45 p.m., a federal agent got into a black SUV and pulled away after loading a cardboard box with marked evidence bags and a large rolled-up poster into the vehicle.
A desktop computer tower could be seen stowed in the back seat, along with a few other cardboard boxes, before the SUV took off west on 111th.
About 2 p.m., about eight government employees left the building through the front entrance, lugging five boxes — some marked “evidence” — bags, envelopes, a trash bag and a computer monitor.
The employees got into five vehicles parked in front and left without acknowledging the dozen or so reporters outside.
If Austin gets indicted, she will join a relatively short list of female aldermen who ran afoul of the law. Only three female aldermen have been convicted of corruption.
Altogether, 35 aldermen have been convicted since 1973.
Austin would join former Aldermen Sandi Jackson (7th), Arenda Troutman (20th) and Marian Humes (8th).