When even one-time reformers turn corrupt, we must strengthen good government laws

Ineffective campaign finance rules, allowing alderpersons to make unilateral decisions on many permits and zoning changes and permitting elected officeholders to represent clients seeking government aid invite corruption.

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Then-Ald. Daniel Solis speaks at a Chicago City Council meeting in 2018.

Then-Ald. Daniel Solis speaks at a Chicago City Council meeting in 2018.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

When former Ald. Daniel Solis (25th) was arraigned this week, it reminded us of Chicago’s long history of promising figures who brought the city a bit of hope only to wind up on the wrong side of the law.

Sometimes in this city you can’t tell the reformers from the grafters, even with a scorecard.

In his early days before he joined the City Council, Solis had community reform credentials. He made a name for himself in the 1980s when he led voter registration and citizenship campaigns as the leader of the United Neighborhood Organization, which helped Latinos gain power and influence. He also was among the founders of the Latino Youth Alternative High School.

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But in a newly revealed deferred prosecution agreement, Solis admits to discussing plans to solicit campaign money from a development group that needed his help at City Hall. Among the benefits he allegedly sought were Viagra, prostitution services and campaign contributions.

Now, Solis will probably be remembered as just another hack, pleading guilty to a bribery count after wearing a wire to help federal investigators go after Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Solis is not the first to see his star splash straight down into Lake Michigan.

Former Ald. Fred D. Hubbard (2nd) was championed as a new hope for his ward when, in a 1969 special election, he beat a Machine-backed opponent who didn’t even live within the ward’s boundaries. But Hubbard, a former high school teacher and social worker, promptly vanished with $100,000 meant for a hiring program. He pleaded guilty to embezzling and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Then there was former maverick Ald. Larry Bloom (5th), who presented himself as the conscience of the City Council and who supported many reforms. In 1989, he ran for mayor as “Mr. Clean.” Columnist Mike Royko wrote Bloom was “afflicted with both honesty and intelligence.” Yet in 1998, Bloom pleaded guilty to a tax charge after admitting to taking $14,000 in bribes from an FBI mole in the Operation Silver Shovel corruption investigation. Go figure.

For a time, former Ald. Rick Munoz (22nd) supported reform causes on the City Council. But last month, he was sentenced to 13 months in prison for diverting money from the Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus, of which he was chair, to buy himself iPhones, sports tickets, clothes and other personal items.

Let’s not forget former 41st Ward Ald. Edward Scholl. As author and historian Richard Lindberg recalls, Scholl was seen as a youthful reformer when he joined the City Council in 1963. As one of the last official Republicans on the City Council, he was expected to counter Democratic Machine politics and patronage. But two years after Scholl moved on to the state Senate in 1973, he was indicted and later convicted on a bribery charge in connection with a developer who requested a zoning change in his ward.

More recently, former city Treasurer Miriam Santos was lauded as a reformer after she was appointed to the job in 1989. As former Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal recounted, she nixed non-interest-bearing accounts at clout-heavy banks, exposed a check-cashing scam and computerized the office. But she resigned after pleading guilty to mail fraud.

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Over the years, civic-minded citizens have offered many suggestions on how to restructure city government to reduce corruption and make it more responsive to voters, but they have made little headway.

Ineffective campaign finance rules, allowing alderpersons to make unilateral decisions on so many permits and zoning changes and permitting elected officeholders to represent clients seeking government help make it tempting to pursue money and power by nefarious means, even for individuals who once thought of themselves as reformers.

As James Merriner wrote in his 2004 book “Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago” — “The players, rules and scorekeepers change, but not the essential game.”

When we see how the lure of tainted money has co-opted even those who promised cleaner government, it’s time to take another look at how we can do better.

(Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to clarify that Ald. Larry Bloom pled guilty to a tax charge after admitting taking $14,000 in bribes in the Operation Silver Shovel investigation.)

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