First the federal judge sentenced the silver-haired former chief of staff to Ald. Howard Brookins to 15 months in prison for taking a $7,500 cash bribe at a 2013 Christmas party.
Then he looked at Curtis V. Thompson Jr. and said, “You messed up, and you know it.”
“I definitely know it,” Thompson replied.
The sentence U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan imposed Wednesday on Thompson, 63, is three times as long as the one handed down last month to former state Rep. Derrick Smith in an unrelated but similar case. U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman sentenced Smith in April to five months in prison for taking a $7,000 cash bribe roughly a year after being appointed to an elected office.
But Der-Yeghiayan said bribery among public officials can’t be tolerated, and he gave Thompson every day of the sentence federal prosecutors sought for the day’s “poster child for corruption.”
“Public corruption does hurt the public,” Der-Yeghiayan said. “And the public needs to be protected.”
Afterward, Thompson hugged his supporters in a crowded courtroom gallery.
Thompson admitted to the judge in December he helped an undercover federal informant secure letters of support from Brookins in 2013 for a 21st Ward liquor license. In exchange, the informant gave Thompson 75 $100 bills stuffed inside a Christmas card at the alderman’s holiday party.
“I really appreciate you, brother,” Thompson allegedly told the informant. “I got you back. . . . I do all the work with little acknowledgement, so I don’t know how long I’m gonna be around.”
Brookins — who has not been criminally charged and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing — was on a golf course during the sentencing.
“Wow!” Brookins said later. “What did the feds ask for?”
Federal prosecutors asked in March for the exact sentence the judge handed down Wednesday, arguing in filings that Thompson gave Chicagoans “one more reason to give in to the cynicism of a ‘where’s mine?’ political culture.”
Court records show the informant offered the bribe multiple times, including at a meeting Brookins attended on Oct. 29, 2013. During that meeting, federal authorities said the informant handed Brookins a sheet of paper with a Post-It note attached that read “$12K to you for letter of support.”
The alderman told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year that he does “not remember, acknowledge receiving or seeing any document. And I’m certain if that happened, it is on tape, and so the context of what, when, how, etc., only the feds could answer that.”
In fact, court records show federal authorities have video and audio recordings of the meetings.
Not only that, but Thompson revealed in a court filing Tuesday that he signed a cooperation agreement dated Feb. 27, 2014, and wore a recording device to help federal authorities “ensnare” Brookins. His attorney, William P. Murphy, wrote that impatient feds “ultimately blew the investigation.”
The newly re-elected Brookins refused to comment on that disclosure Wednesday.
“I don’t want to have any comment right now,” Brookins said. “I promise I will have some comment. But not right now. My attorneys are still advising me to be silent. I’ve got nothing to say right now. I don’t want to say anything.”
Asked if he knew Thompson had worn a recording device, Brookins said, “I don’t know anything about that. Obviously, I wouldn’t know anything about that. You’d have to talk to the feds.”
In court Wednesday, Murphy described Thompson as a Navy veteran and father of four who devoted his life to doing good, especially for senior citizens and children. He called the bribe Thompson accepted “a terrible mistake.”
Joseph C. Ziegler Jr., who ran against Brookins for alderman earlier this year, appeared on Thompson’s behalf and asked the judge to let Thompson repay his debt to society by working for Ziegler’s Community Action Network.
Thompson himself apologized to the judge and the community. He said he’s lost even the respect he once had for himself.
“It all just evaporated,” Thompson said. “It’s gone now.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Cunniff Church said the federal informant made “explicit” and “outrageous” bribe offers to Thompson. And rather than throw the informant out of his office after the first one, she said Thompson set up yet another meeting. She said Thompson on Wednesday became “today’s poster child” for corruption in Chicago.
Acknowledging Thompson’s attempt to cooperate with the government “wasn’t fruitful,” Church said an example should be made of Thompson despite the good he otherwise did while working his city job.
“All of the good that is owed — by virtue of that job — cannot erase corruption,” Church said.