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Convicted in Silver Shovel, he’s now doing political work for Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough

‘I’ve made mistakes, and everyone has,’ Yarbrough says when asked about James Blassingame, who was found guilty in the late 1990s corruption case of being a middleman for bribes to a Chicago alderman and others. ‘How long should we be punishing him?’

James Blassingame (in cap) leaves federal court in Chicago with his attorney Rick Halprin in July 1996 after being arraigned in Operation Silver Shovel.
James Blassingame (in cap) leaves federal court in Chicago with his attorney Rick Halprin in July 1996 after being arraigned in Operation Silver Shovel.
John H. White / Sun-Times

Political operative James Blassingame was sent to federal prison in the 1990s in the Operation Silver Shovel investigation that snared a number of Chicago-area public officials for bribery and other corruption.

Now, long since released, Blassingame has been doing campaign work for Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, one of the highest-ranking figures in the Illinois Democratic Party.

Within the past year, Blassingame has been a paid consultant or contractual worker for three political committees associated with Yarbrough, whose government agency’s mandates include ensuring the integrity of elections. Records show the groups are: Citizens to Elect Karen Yarbrough, Friends of Henderson Yarbrough Sr. and the Maywood United Party.

Henderson Yarbrough is Karen Yarbrough’s husband. Like her father, he’s a former mayor of Maywood, where the family lives and for decades has been at the top of the political establishment.

Since 2012, the Yarbroughs’ political funds have paid Blassingame, 69, more than $55,000 for campaign work, nearly half of that coming this year and last year, according to financial disclosures filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Blassingame, who used to live in Maywood and now lives in Broadview, is also field manager for the Proviso Township Democratic Organization headed by Karen Yarbrough, the township’s Democratic committeeman, according to the group’s website, which says he is part of the group’s executive committee.

Blassingame also works as a dispatcher for the Proviso Township government, making about $40,000 a year.

He says Karen Yarbrough didn’t help him get the township job and that the political work he does involves candidates in the Maywood area who are supported by the Yarbroughs.

Blassingame says he isn’t affiliated with the Illinois Democratic Party, which is headed by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. Karen Yarbrough is on the party’s state central committee.

“I primarily worked on some municipal elections” in the last campaign season, Blassingame says.

He says he has been doing low-level field work: circulating petitions for candidates to get on the ballot, challenging rival candidates’ petitions and handling election-day tasks.

Before Yarbrough became clerk — a post in which she oversees elections in the Cook County suburbs and is in charge of birth, marriage and death certificates — she was the county’s recorder of deeds, the repository of property records, and a state legislator who was part of Madigan’s legislative leadership team.

Asked about his crimes, Blassingame says he doesn’t see any problem again working in politics: “I say, yeah, for something that happened in 1998, what is that, 20 years ago?”

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough.
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough.
Cook County

Karen Yarbrough says she didn’t know about Blassingame’s past troubles when she began enlisting his help. Besides, she says, “I believe in second chances. . . . He’s a success story . . . He’s certainly done a good job for my husband and certainly myself.

“I’m not perfect, and I’ve made mistakes, and everyone has,” Yarbrough says. “How long should we be punishing him? . . . Should we make it so he can’t feed himself and is on the public dole?”

Blassingame, who once helped run President Bill Clinton’s election efforts in Indiana, was convicted in three cases related to the federal Silver Shovel investigation, in which undercover “mole” John Christopher acted as a crooked contractor and bribed government officials:

  • In 1997, Blassingame was sentenced to a year in prison for not filing tax returns.
  • In 1998, he was convicted of having been a “bagman” for two Metropolitan Water Reclamation District officials and sentenced to 37 months.
  • In 1999, Blassingame pleaded guilty to acting as a middleman between Christopher and then-Ald. Percy Giles (37th), who was convicted of bribery and extortion, and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

A half dozen Chicago aldermen were among those convicted in Silver Shovel, which the FBI calls “one of the most extensive corruption probes in Chicago history,” which “uncovered everything from labor union corruption to drug trafficking and organized crime activity.”