Another Chicago alderman allegedly runs afoul of the law: Let’s fill out the form

On Thursday, we added Ald. Carrie Austin to our file. She’s the latest alderman to run afoul of the law and, truth be told, we’re more disappointed than usual.

SHARE Another Chicago alderman allegedly runs afoul of the law: Let’s fill out the form
FIREHOUSE_040121_14.JPG

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th)

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file photo

We keep a blank form on hand for days like this, filed under “A”:

Aldermen in Trouble with the Law

Name:

Years of aldermanic “service”:

Charges:

Size of alleged bribe or cash value of material goods:

Protestations of innocence:

Resolution of charges:

Sentence:

Prison release date:

Our file of partial and completed forms is fat. A full drawer. We created the form, for convenience sake, way back when, possibly when Ald. Paul Wigoda was convicted of bribery in 1974. But it’s hard to be sure. We do periodic purges to make room for new, completed forms.

On Thursday, we added Ald. Carrie Austin to the file. She’s the latest alderman to run afoul of the law, allegedly, and, truth be told, we’re more disappointed than usual.

Editorials bug

Editorials

Not that we didn’t see it coming. Austin had been under federal investigation for more than two years. And if you understand Chicago, you understand never to be shocked when an alderman, even a super reform type, is caught out. Remember Larry Bloom?

It’s just that Austin has skills. She understands municipal budgeting and how to work nicely with other people, and she’s been willing to take some tough votes on third-rail issues like taxes. She’s done some good work to recruit new retail businesses to her ward, the 34th on the South Side.

It’s sad to see her name go in the file, though she’ll have some lively company, as in very much alive. We file every form chronologically, so Austin is right next to two other sitting aldermen, Ed Burke and Patrick Daley Thompson.

We suppose our point today is simply this:

It’s a wonder that so many Chicago aldermen keep getting charged with crimes. More than 30 since 1972. Mostly for various schemes to use the powers of their office to enrich themselves. They get paid pretty well, more than $120,000 a year at the moment. But some of them find it hard to limp along on that kind of money and treat the job like an ATM.

Is it something in Chicago’s water? Something in the city’s boomtown roots?

Chicago alderman have been going crooked since before the days of the Gray Wolves, from about 1890 to 1930, when colorful rogues like “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin put a price on every vote they cast.

You want a zoning change? Pay up. You want a sign outside your store? Pay up. You want a liquor license? Pay up now, and pay up again every year.

Maybe the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, compared with the feds in other cities, has just been more aggressive about going after crooked aldermen. Maybe it’s their culture.

But we really don’t think so. We think it’s mostly a matter of opportunity.

A lot of Chicago aldermen have practiced the dark arts because they can. They traditionally have held remarkable powers for otherwise lowly figures that people like to laugh at, and they wave around this thing called “aldermanic prerogative” like its Harry Potter’s magic wand.

In the old days, aldermen could dictate which streets got plowed first after a snowstorm and which did not. No small matter for a mom-and-pop grocery store. They could make sure your garbage got picked up or sat and rotted. They could decide which alleys got paved and which did not.

Aldermen can’t do all of that anymore, no. Things have changed. But thanks to aldermanic prerogative, they still have the final say over quite a few small but potentially lucrative matters, such as zoning changes, store awning permits and business licenses.

Just last Friday, the City Council killed a proposal by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to greatly constrict aldermanic prerogative, complaining that they’d be nobody without it.

Poor babies.

Aldermanic prerogative should be seriously curbed. Too many aldermen keep abusing the privilege.

In a federal indictment on Thursday, Austin was charged with conspiring to get home improvements from building contractors in return for her support of a new development in her ward. Her chief of staff, Chester Wilson, was charged, too.

Time will tell, but that looks like an abuse of aldermanic prerogative to us.

In a similar way, three years ago, Ed Burke in the 14th Ward was charged with racketeering and extortion in an indictment that accused him of putting the squeeze on a Burger King that needed construction permits.

That would be an abuse of aldermanic prerogative, too.

Our file drawer is overstuffed again. We’re just going to have to throw out our “Aldermen in Trouble with the Law” forms for a few more old-timers.

Goodbye to Casimir Staszcuk, convicted in 1973 of taking $9,000 to arrange zoning changes. Goodbye to Donald Swinarski, who pleaded guilty in 1975 to taking $7,800 to arrange zoning changes. Goodbye to William Carothers, convicted in 1983 of extorting $32,500 from the builders of a local hospital.

You’re still in the club, guys. Honorary Gray Wolves all.

But we have to make room for all the aldermen to come.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

The Latest
The Skywest Airlines flight from Joplin, Missouri, to Chicago made an emergency landing at Peoria International Airport Thursday morning.
Brumby and Willum, a pair of 2-year-old male koalas, will be viewable to the public at 2 p.m. Tuesday — the first time koalas will inhabit Brookfield Zoo Chicago.
Thomas Pavey of Ormond Beach, Florida, and Raheim Hamilton of Suffolk, Virginia, are accused of owning and operating Empire Market, an online site where thousands of vendors sold illegal goods and services, including heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, counterfeit currency and stolen credit card information, according to the indictment.
Plans for the new Morgridge Family Lakeside Learning Studios were unveiled Friday, along with an expansion of the Shedd’s youth education programs in South and West side neighborhoods. The learning center, she added, will serve about 300,000 young people very year.