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The rise and fall of Ald. Carrie Austin

The epitome of an old-school alderman, Austin rose to the heights of City Council power, only to see it diminished.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) at the City Council meeting last week. Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Carrie Austin is the epitome of an old-school alderman who owes her political power to nepotism, perpetuated that system and defended it without apology.

She was appointed to the City Council in 1994 by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to succeed her husband, Budget Committee Chairman Lemuel Austin (34th), who died of a heart attack at age 48.

Lemuel Austin was known for his fiery speeches in defense of Daley, who didn’t have too many other African American supporters during his early years in office.

“Don’t mess with Austin,” Lemuel Austin, once scolded his colleagues on the council floor. “Because remember, I’ve got information that could embarrass you all, OK?”

Carrie Austin quickly became every bit as loyal to Daley as her husband had been. Seven years later, Daley rewarded her with the City Counci’s Budget Committee chairmanship.

When Daley chose political retirement over a seventh term, Austin quickly transferred her fierce loyalty to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, pushing through every one of his budgets.

Austin also was always outspoken about hiring her relatives.

Three years ago, Austin’s son resigned from his $72,384-a-year city laborer’s job after an investigation concluded he crashed a city vehicle while driving on a suspended license, then had a co-worker cover for him to avoid taking a mandatory drug test.

Kenny Austin and co-worker Darryl Milsap were accused of an alleged cover-up unmasked by Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

The crash damaged a city van and a private vehicle but caused no injuries. It occurred in 2012, but not until 2013 did Ferguson’s office get an anonymous tip that reports filed about the accident were fraudulent.

After investigators interviewed co-workers and examined police reports, driving records, damage estimates, drug tests and surveillance video, the inspector general confronted both men.

Sources said Kenny Austin allegedly lied to investigators by claiming to have been the passenger — not the driver.

The alderman’s son violated personnel rules by driving on a suspended license, failing to report the accident and falsely claiming the passenger was the driver, so he could avoid the mandatory drug test required of city drivers after on-duty accidents.

Sources said Milsap contradicted Kenny Austin, admitting Austin was behind the wheel, that they had traded places because Austin wasn’t supposed to be driving and that Milsap had taken the drug test.

Armed with Milsap’s confession, Ferguson recommended both men be fired; instead, both resigned.

Carrie Austin had helped Ald. Edward Burke (14th) block an ordinance to give Ferguson the power to investigate aldermen and their employees.

On the day her son resigned, Carrie Austin accused Ferguson of targeting her son to get even.

“Everybody’s trying to make like Kenny is the liar. That’s not true. Milsap is the liar. He came with his own personal attorney and the inspector general believed them. That’s what the inspector general wanted to do because it’s my son. I’m sick and tired of this f------ city witch-hunting my god---- family,” the alderman said then.

Pressed to explain why her son resigned, Austin said, “He said, ‘Mother, I cannot lose my pension on no b.s.’ And I said, ‘OK, son. Do what you have to do . . . If you want to fight it, I’ll fight it with you. But it’s your decision.’”

A furious Austin also alleged Milsap had told another city employee “that they had to protect me. From what? That’s a bald-faced lie. That’s the reason I know they’re lying. Why would you even say that you were protecting me? What were you protecting me from? I believe it’s a witch hunt.”

Further complicating things: another one of Carrie Austin’s sons, Lemuel Austin III, was the superintendent overseeing the South Side division where his brother worked. City Hall, however, said he was not promoted to that post until 2013 — after the accident.

The division superintendent at the time of the accident failed to notify a safety administrator when the accident occurred. The department brass was unaware of it until the spring of 2013, when the inspector general started asking questions.

The Austin family has been tied to nepotism in other ways.

For five years, ending in 1993, Lemuel Austin and another alderman, Anthony C. Laurino (39th), engaged in the art of political “wife-swapping.”

Laurino’s wife was placed on the payroll of the City Council’s Budget Committee, chaired by Lemuel Austin. Laurino, who chaired the Traffic Committee, returned the favor, giving Carrie Austin a committee job.

Carrie Austin insisted she earned her $37,560-a-year field investigator’s pay by driving around four South Side wards in search of broken street signs.

After cruising to reelection in 2011 with 65% of the vote over four challengers, Carrie Austin chose Lemuel III as her ward superintendent. Lemuel III had run snow-removal operations in the 34th Ward during the infamous Ground Hog Day 2011 blizzard that shut down Lake Shore Drive.

For years, Austin also has suffered one health scare after another. Then, in October 2015, an emotional Austin wrapped up two weeks of budget hearings with what sounded like a political swan song.

Through tears of joy, Austin talked in surprising detail about the health crisis that nearly killed her.

“I tore my aorta. I almost wasn’t here. But I’m grateful that God allowed me to be here. I was in the hospital 29 days. For the first two weeks, I was unconscious. I was in a coma. … But I’m grateful for the God that I serve because I’m sitting here today,” Austin said as her colleagues applauded.

“So, I’m doing pretty good unless it decides to go the other way. Then, it’ll be instant death. But if it happens, I’m ready to see the Lord because I have served him all of my life.”

Austin then talked about the power of prayer.

“The prayers that you all sent up is why I sit here. Maybe God didn’t hear me. But he truly heard you all. And for that, I could never, ever thank you enough,” Austin said.

“When I leave this council chambers, my family and I will be forever grateful to all of you. Because whether you like me, love me, can’t stand me or whatever, you prayed that I would be back here,” she added.

“If I’ve offended anybody, I’m sorry. Charge it to my head and never to my heart, ’cause I love each and every one of you, even though you make me sick and get on my nerves.”