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Last call for Fast Eddie

Former Ald. Edward Vrdolyak is slated for sentencing Friday in a tobacco settlement fee case.

Former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak on the City Council floor during his “Fast Eddie” heyday.
CST

Edward R. “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak has lost a step, and Friday he may learn whether he will lose his freedom as well.

For the second time in a decade, Vrdolyak is scheduled to go before a federal judge for sentencing, and the question at hand is much the same as it was the first:

What’s the right way to deal with an old crook?

Should the soon-to-be 83-year-old be sent back to prison for a couple years in recognition of his longstanding disregard for the law, as prosecutors ask, or should he be spared prison completely because of his age and infirmity, as his own lawyers plead?

Either way, it’s a sad finish for the charismatic rogue once considered untouchable because of his ability to stay one step ahead of the law while engaged in one shady deal after another as a leading member of the Chicago City Council and chairman of the then-powerful Cook County Democratic Party.

What tripped up Vrdolyak this time was possibly the sweetest score of his career, finagling a piece of Illinois’ giant class action settlement against tobacco companies, which to date has paid him more than $12 million.

How exactly he managed that without actually working on the case remains unclear, despite pages and pages of documents filed by both sides offering partial explanations of how a Seattle lawyer, hired by then-Attorney General Jim Ryan to represent the state, gave Vrdolyak a 10% cut.

That’s really all I’ve ever wanted from this case, not another pound of flesh but the truth of how he pulled it off, in Vrdolyak’s own words. And sadly, I’m not expecting it to emerge at sentencing.

The great irony is Vrdolyak was never charged with taking the money. Hell, he even paid taxes on it all along.

His mistake was in failing to respond honestly to an IRS levy trying to recover funds from a co-conspirator, Daniel Soso, who was trying to avoid paying taxes on his share of the fee Vrdolyak was splitting with him.

Vrdolyak got too cute in his efforts to mislead the IRS — and ended up pleading guilty to aiding Soso in his tax evasion. Now Judge Robert Dow controls his fate.

Before Dow passes sentence, the lawyers are expected to clash over whether Vrdolyak has truly accepted responsibility for his crime and whether his fee deal was “secret,” as prosecutors allege.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vrdolyak will not appear in court in person but instead by video conference.

Vrdolyak’s lawyers paint a bleak picture of his health and argue prison would be a death sentence for him, especially during the pandemic.

He has a brain tumor, they say, which has not progressed to the point of requiring treatment but must be closely monitored and may already be contributing to a loss of balance and memory.

Vrdolyak walks with a limp and has had several falls. He also suffers from numbness in his hands and feet and can’t dress himself without assistance. He even has trouble holding a book and turning the pages.

On top of all that, they report he’s experiencing increased signs of cognitive impairment and dementia.

Federal prosecutors don’t dispute the extent of Vrdolyak’s health problems but say the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is equipped to handle them. They also say this is what happens when senior citizens continue to commit crimes.

The only allowance they make is for the pandemic: suggesting Vrdolyak be allowed to wait to report to prison until after a vaccine is widely available next year.

Aside from the weightier issues at hand, defense lawyers are asking the judge to strike a reference in his presentence report to Fast Eddie being Vrdolyak’s “alias.”

They call it an “unsolicited moniker concocted by the media many years ago,” not a true alias.

I’ve watched young reporters who never saw Vrdolyak at his zenith struggle these days to explain the man and the nickname to new audiences.

But for those Chicagoans who saw him in action during his heyday when it could reasonably be argued he owned the city — or a good portion of it, certainly the judges — he simply was Fast Eddie.

While the nickname was indeed born of a newspaper headline, it was an image Vrdolyak fostered with “fast deals and fast politics,” as a friend at the Tribune once wrote.

Vrdolyak was fast with his quips, fast with his putdowns, fast at figuring out the angles and fast at playing them — always on the lookout for a fast buck.

It’s a shame the judge can’t just sentence Vrdolyak to sit in a courtroom for a month and tell truths about Chicago politics, answering questions about the schemes he’s schemed and the deals he’s done — and with whom.

That would be justice.