Chicago fights corruption's long shadow - again
A high-profile probe and a towing scandal are the latest in the city's struggles to fight a reputation for crooked deals.
CHICAGO — Read the papers here, and you might think little has changed from the days when Chicago politicians got money from Al Capone.
New details keep emerging in the case against James Duff, a politically connected businessman who won city contracts by fudging facts on company ownership and recently pleaded guilty to 33 counts, including racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, and fraud.
Last week, the federal government charged the 16th person in its "Hired Truck" corruption probe - a scandal in which officials allegedly forced companies that wanted lucrative city contracts to pay bribes, make campaign donations, or do free work on their homes.
And earlier this month, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) came out so forcefully against corruption at City Hall - which has included a towing scandal and questions over O'Hare contracts in addition to the trucking and minority-owned firm scams - that pundits are speculating about a future challenge to longtime mayor and icon Richard M. Daley.
The scandals are a far cry from Chicago's rampant corruption of a few decades ago; many of the charges involve the sort of back-scratching and ethical slides that occur beneath the surface in many cities.
But in Chicago, history and reputation mean that even run-of-the-mill scandals can raise questions about just how far behind the city has left its crooked practices, and create problems for a mayor trying to change Chicago's image from mobsters and dirty politicians to soaring skylines and lakefront parks.
One reason the electorate has been so blasé is that the scandals are "a reinforcement, not a revelation," says Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant. "The current mayor is always making a pretense that he's cleaned things up, and that this doesn't go on, but obviously it does, and he's embarrassed."
Most of the scandals, too, require an accounting degree to follow: They involve the arcane world of city contracts. But they have their share of colorful characters - like Angelo Torres, a former gang member who became director of the city's Hired Truck program, or John "Quarters" Boyle, who earned his nickname stealing millions of dollars' worth of quarters from state tollways before going to work for the city - and shady dealings.
The heart of the Hired Truck charges is that the city ran a "pay to play" system for its trucking contracts. The federal government has brought charges of fraud, extortion, and bribery, and said the city's Water Department ran a "racketeering enterprise."
The trials of Mr. Duff and his associates, meanwhile, have to do with falsely representing company ownership to grab $100 million in contracts reserved for minority- and women-owned businesses.
And a separate scandal involves the city's towing practices, in which unclaimed vehicles were sold for scrap after 15 days. The city made little more than $100 a vehicle, and the company buying the cars was free to sell them for thousands of dollars apiece.
Still, the scandals are, in many ways, fairly ordinary - nothing like the corruption that's part of Chicago's lore. Back then, "it was almost out-and-out thievery," says Richard Ciccone, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and author of "Chicago and the American Century." "You had aldermen who were running illicit operations and virtually, in some places, tied in with mobsters."
After World War II, corruption here became less blatant and more white-collar. Certain actions, like getting jobs for friends or family, were done openly. (Former Mayor Richard J. Daley had a well-known diatribe for those who questioned the jobs he got for his sons - they could kiss the mistletoe hanging from his coattails.)
These days, politics here are cleaner, though it's a famously one-party town in which the mayor holds the power. The current allegations, says Mr. Ciccone, are "the same kind of things that go on [in most cities], especially with the big dollars in politics today."
Still, the scandals have been an embarrassment for Mayor Daley, who's repeatedly promised to clean up corruption. He's responded by tightening up the process for choosing contractors, posting available contracts on the Internet, and recertifying women- and minority-owned businesses.
"They'll do whatever Band-Aid work is necessary," says Mr. Rose. I don't think anybody's going to change the system."
Few question Daley himself, although some, like Rose, suggest that people under him may reward Daley's friends and associates - people like James Duff - assuming it will make the mayor happy.
But others say the only reason so many of the mayors' "friends" get business is that so many people purport to be his friend.
"He doesn't need contractors, he doesn't need patronage armies to get elected mayor of the city of Chicago. All he needs to do is run on his record," says David Axelrod, a political consultant who works for Daley. Corruption is "not something you can fully eradicate in any city, and it's not something that happens overnight."
No matter the prospects for change, the hardest transformation may be that of public opinion - Chicagoans' sense of a corruption so deep, it's just part of the city's culture.
Politicians are "still doin' their thing." says Walter Gayles, a retired salesman who's lived here for 40 years. "When they're in [office], everyone affiliated with them is going to get some money."