Ald. Carrie Austin pleads not guilty during arraignment on federal bribery charges

Austin’s indictment not only made her the third sitting member of the Chicago City Council currently under federal indictment. It also meant the council’s two most senior members face federal criminal charges.

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Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) speaks with reporters after a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall last month.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th)

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Longtime Ald. Carrie M. Austin (34th) pleaded not guilty through her lawyer during her arraignment Thursday, one week after she became the third sitting member of Chicago’s City Council to face a federal indictment.

Austin’s chief of staff, Chester Wilson Jr., also pleaded not guilty through his lawyer. Their arraignment took place by telephone before U.S. District Judge John Kness. Austin spoke only briefly as the hearing began, answering most questions from the judge with “yes sir.”

A federal grand jury last week accused Austin of bribery and lying to the FBI in a 19-page indictment that also charged Wilson with bribery and theft of government funds.

Prosecutors say a developer involved in a $50 million, 91-unit development in Austin’s ward sought to influence Austin and Wilson with home improvements, furniture or appliances. The developer had a deal with the city of Chicago that made his company eligible for $10.5 million in tax increment financing and other funding, and Austin and Wilson allegedly took official actions to benefit the developer, a relative and an associate of his, and their companies.

A source identified the development as the Renaissance at Beverly Ridge, once headed by Lemont businessman Boris Nitchoff, who died in 2020.

Austin’s indictment not only made her the third sitting member of the Chicago City Council under federal indictment, it also meant the council’s two most senior members face federal criminal charges. 

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) is the council’s longest-serving alderman and faces a 2019 racketeering indictment that accused him of using his position on the City Council to steer business to his private law firm. Austin, appointed to the council in 1994, is second in seniority to Burke.

In late April, a federal grand jury indicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), nephew and grandson of Chicago’s two longest-serving mayors. Thompson faces charges involving what prosecutors say was a massive fraud scheme at a Bridgeport bank.

Austin had been under a cloud for two years since federal authorities raided her ward offices on June 19, 2019. That signaled she might face the same fate as Burke, who was first charged in January 2019 after his offices were raided in November 2018.

Now, prosecutors say Austin lied to them the day her offices were raided, denying she received anything from Nitchoff other than a cake. When told Nitchoff had provided a dehumidifier at her home, they say Austin said, “Not to me.”

The indictment alleges that Austin sent aldermanic acknowledgment letters by email in 2016 stating she had no objection to the city issuing building permits within the development. 

In 2017 and 2018, Austin worked with Nitchoff to seek the release of city payments to a bank that financed the project, according to the indictment. During those years, Austin and Wilson also allegedly authorized city funds for infrastructure within the development that was the responsibility of Nitchoff’s company. 

Meanwhile, the indictment says Wilson sent a text message Dec. 8, 2016, to a relative of Nitchoff that included drawings for kitchen cabinets to be installed at Austin’s home. On June 20, 2017, a Nitchoff relative had a $5,250 invoice paid to cover part of the cost of Austin’s cabinets, falsely claiming that they were for the development.

On July 5, 2017, Austin sought from Nitchoff “bathroom tiles in white or vein white” for a “five by seven bathroom” at her home, according to the indictment. On July 6 and 7, 2017, Austin allegedly accepted offers from Nitchoff to pay for two “brand new” and “expensive” sump pumps at her home and to have a Nitchoff family member buy and install a new dehumidifier there.

The indictment also alleges that, on Oct. 12, 2017, Nitchoff told Wilson during a phone call that he would pay for part of a new HVAC system at Wilson’s investment property because “you help me a lot, and I’ll help you.”

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