Few days go by without a new corruption charge in Chicago. Mayor Washington poised to enact city ethics code

It's been enough to push the victorious Chicago Bears right off the front pages. The stories taking precedence in the Windy City these days concern what the Chicago Tribune calls the longtime link between the ``city of the big shoulders'' and its ``greased palms.''

An unusually broad scope of federal probes is under way in Chicago. Their focus ranges from corruption in the Cook County court system and City Hall to payoffs and kickbacks tied to shuttle-bus contracts and taxi operations at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The common underlying theme is bribery.

No overall count of the probes is available. But widespread use of eavesdropping and videotape devices by the Federal Bureau of Investigation has recorded widespread corruption. Daniel Reidy of the US Attorney's office in Chicago says: ``We make no comment on our investigations at all because of the grand jury obligation of secrecy.''

Results of the investigations as yet are slim. Three employees in Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's administration have been fired. And the mayor now plans to issue his long-proposed ethics code by executive order. Since many of the City Hall charges involve the awarding of contracts to collection agencies, the mayor has ordered an audit of all overdue city bills and a review of past collection procedures.

But so far there have been convictions in only two of the investigations. (Both of which have been under way for some years.) Four sewer inspectors were convicted of taking thousands of dollars in bribes to issue sewer repair permits. And four of nine judges so far indicted in the Cook County court probe, known as ``Operation Greylord,'' have been convicted. The case of Cook County Circuit Judge Reginald Holzer is currently being tried. So far five lawyers have testified that they made or turned down requests for loans by Judge Holzer.

What does all this fresh attention do to Chicago's reputation as a city where gangsters and political corruption have long flourished? Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry president Samuel R. Mitchell contends that the image problem has never spurred businesses to leave town and that the city's reputation can now only improve.

``Overall this is a very encouraging sign that whatever business as usual may have been, it's certainly no longer accepted,'' says Mr. Mitchell. ``I'm getting very positive vibrations -- there's a pretty strong feeling [among business leaders] of, `Well, it's about time!' ''

Some Chicagoans insist they see progress already. Betty Herrmann, executive director of the Cook County Court Watchers, cites a more balanced morning and afternoon caseload, more on-time starts for cases, more orderly procedures, and far less visible evidence of bribery.``The hustling is pretty well gone,'' she says.

Most Chicagoans tend to feel that corruption here is less than it was.

``I think the people who were around Chicago 50 years ago would probably regard the present system as Mr. Clean,'' notes George F. Galland Jr., a lawyer and former president of a bar reform group called the Chicago Council of Lawyers. ``But it's still so far short of a general state of honesty that there's a lot of work to do. . . . The big crooks, it seems to me, are still having a pretty good time. For all practical purposes, there's a limitless supply of corruption out there for prosecutors to investigate and prove if they want to devote the resources to it.''

Better Government Association executive director Terrence Brunner reads the message from the many federal probes under way now as still more negative than positive. ``The problem is so widespread and incestuous that everyone is afraid to take it on. . . . All those lawyers [in the Holzer case] had the shake put on them, but nobody blew the whistle.''

Mr. Brunner says he is heartened by one fact: ``I think people are disgusted by these latest revelations to a larger degree than anything I've seen in a long time.'' But he adds that only if voters, business leaders, and the mayor follow up with strong demands for reform will the system change. ``It takes a lot more than individual indictments and convictions to get changes in the system. The people interested in honest government have to pick up the ball and do something about it. I don't see that happening.''

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