From Blago to ‘Fast Eddie’ to Ed Burke, a decade in political corruption

Think Illinois saw a historic series of convictions in the 2010s? Get ready, the next round of federal housecleaning appears to be coming.

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Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) enters the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Jan. 3, 2019, after being charged.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks into the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in January 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times file

The decade started with one Illinois governor, George Ryan, in prison, while another, Rod Blagojevich, was still awaiting the first of the two trials that would be required to send him there.

Before 10 years could pass, the state had suffered the ignominy of seeing not only both former governors in prison at once but also having its highest-ranking political convict in history in former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

And as an extra added bonus, the decade brought the unmasking of the most prolifically crooked public servant in state annals, Rita Crundwell, the Dixon, Illinois, comptroller who managed to abscond with an astounding $53.7 million over two decades.

Yet for all those milestones, or maybe because of them, the 2010s have left me with an overall sense of same old, same old.

The names and faces change, but the corrupt activity continues unabated.

We end the decade in the midst of a sprawling political corruption investigation that seems likely to add as many names to our local Wall of Shame as the past 10 combined.

But as eager as we might be to turn the page to the next batch of defendants, let us review what the FBI, IRS and U.S. Attorney’s office hath wrought, because it’s true what they say: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Only what they don’t tell you is that knowing the history doesn’t seem to make much difference either, as witnessed by many of these cases.

The corruption rundown

2010

Former Alderman Edward Vrdolyak leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on Nov. 22, 2016. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Former Ald. Edward Vrdolyak

Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

• Former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak, decades after his reign as the most notorious unindicted member of the Chicago City Council, is at last sentenced to 10 months in prison on a fraud conviction stemming from a $1.5 million kickback in a real estate deal, but only after federal prosecutors successfully appeal a judge’s earlier wrist slap of five years probation.

• Ald. Isaac “Ike” Carothers (29th) pleads guilty to bribery and fraud charges for accepting $40,000 in home improvements from a developer seeking a zoning change and admitting to cash bribes from others. His father, Ald. William Carothers, had been convicted on similar charges nearly three decades earlier.

2011

• After the jury deadlocked in his first trial the year before, Blagojevich is retried and convicted on 17 counts, some of which would later be thrown out on appeal. The Democrat’s 14-year prison sentence would stand.

Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich

AP file photo

• Longtime Republican power broker William Cellini of Springfield is convicted of trying to help extort a $1.5 million campaign contribution for Blagojevich from Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg, a former Chicago real estate developer and pension fund investment manager.

2012

• Crundwell pleads guilty to her massive theft of public monies from Dixon, previously best known as President Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home. Crundwell, who used the money to finance a quarter horse farming business and luxurious lifestyle, draws a 19-year, 7-month prison sentence.

2013

• U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat who used his campaign fund as a “personal piggy bank,” pleads guilty to fraud and is sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, arrive at federal court in Washington in 2013 for their sentencing. | Susan Walsh/AP file photo

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, arrive at federal court in Washington in 2013 for their sentencing. | Susan Walsh/AP file photo

• The congressman’s wife, Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th), pleads guilty to filing a false tax return as part of the same scheme and gets a one-year prison sentence.

• Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, a former 7th Ward alderman, is sentenced to six months in prison for tax evasion after being convicted of using campaign funds for personal purposes, including gambling.

• Former 25th Ward Ald. Ambrosio Medrano hits the trifecta with his second and third public fraud convictions — believed to be a first — this time involving shady deals with Cook County government.

2014

• Former state Rep. Derrick Smith is convicted of bribery and extortion for pocketing a $7,000 bribe.In one of the undercover recordings made by an FBI mole, Smith referred to the bribe money as “cheddar.”

2015

hastert.jpg

Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert departs the federal courthouse in Chicago in 2015.

Christian K. Lee/AP file photo

• Hastert, a Republican, pleads guilty in a hush money scheme to keep secret allegations of sexual misconduct decades earlier while he was working as a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville. He is later sentenced to 15 months in prison.

2017

• Former Congressman Mel Reynolds is found guilty of failing to file four years of federal income tax returns. It isn’t his first run-in with the law. Two decades earlier, Reynolds had been convicted twice — first for having sex with an underage campaign worker and later for defrauding banks.

2019

• “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, now 81, pleads guilty in a complicated tax evasion case, now his second conviction.

• Powerful City Council Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke, Vrdolyak’s former ally in mischief, is charged with racketeering and bribery for his alleged efforts to extort businesses for legal work for his law firm. The veteran 14th Ward alderman, the longest serving member of the council, is re-elected despite the investigation hanging over him.

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) arrives for arraignment at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in 2016. He was accompanied by attorney Thomas Durkin, right. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) arrives for arraignment at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in 2016. He is accompanied by attorney Thomas Durkin, right.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

• Ald. Willie Cochran receives a one-year prison sentence afterpleading guilty to one count of wire fraud for diverting money from a charity to pay personal expenses, including gambling trips and his daughter’s college tuition.

• Three others, state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, D-Villa Park, state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, and Ald.Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st), end 2019 facing criminal charges related to various schemes.

The past decade has brought us so many political convictions, in fact, that others convicted of crimes rate only a dishonorable mention: Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, Rep. Constance Howard, Rep. Keith Farnham and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, to name a few.

The pattern seems clear: Nobody learns nothing.

Glimmer of hope?

But after decades of tracking the misdeeds of Illinois politicians with his friend Dick Simpson, Chicago media consultant Thomas Gradel believes he has detected a glimmer of hope.

Gradel, co-author with the former alderman of the book “Corrupt Illinois,” says political scandals here have always been treated like hurricanes — discreet events that roared across the public landscape wreaking havoc in their wake, only to be forgotten until the next one came through, with no real attention paid to doing things differently.

“I see that changing now. We just had to raise people’s awareness of how pervasive corruption is. This is something that needs to be changed systematically,” Gradel said.

In the meantime, hurricane season is right around the corner.

And I’ll be standing on the beach in my yellow raincoat.

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