With Barack Obama possibly becoming the next President, it’s time to look at the Senator’s hometown. The Senator may have talked a great deal about change as a candidate, but to a large extent he has worked closely with what may be one of the most corrupt political cultures in America.
Of course every politician has his or her skeletons – McCain for example with Charles Keating and his assorted scandals. But with Chicago, Obama has links to an entire cemetery of corruption. It’s not surprising, for example, that the FBI has its largest public corruption squad located in its city limits. This is the ultimate one-party city: Chicago has had a Democratic mayor since 1931, something of a record for a major city. Today, 49 of the city’s 50 Aldermen are Democrats. Things like the skyline and demographics change in Chicago, but not the politics.
A a result of this one party system, the city has one of the most expansive and expensive governments in the country. Recently, Chicago's sales tax made national news because, at 10.25 %, it is the highest in the nation. A major reason taxes are so high: corruption is costly.
This is not a hard case to make.
Chicago’s Aldermen have a felony conviction rate that would shock outsiders. Since 1973, 27 Chicago Aldermen have been convicted by U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Illinois. This includes former Alderman Fred Roti whose amazing criminal career helped turn Chicago's City government into a racketeering enterprise.
Roti was a Chicago Alderman from 1968-1991. At the time of his indictment in 1990, Roti was Chicago’s longest serving Alderman. Here’s a description of Roti by the Justice Department, “ Fred Roti was convicted of RICO conspiracy, bribery and extortion regarding the fixing of criminal cases in the Circuit Court of Cook County, including murder cases involving organized crime members or associates and was sentenced to 48 months' imprisonment.” At Roti’s sentencing, federal judge Marvin Aspen reminded everyone of the danger of Alderman Roti. “But there is a bigger victim, and that’s the whole democratic process. When you have the courts of law that are fixed, when you have a city government that is fixed, what are doing, really, is attacking the core of democracy. You’re saying that this democracy…is the same as any other banana republic or corrupt regime.”
During his time as an elected Alderman, Roti effectively controlled Chicago’s legislative branch. The Chicago Tribune wrote, describing his tenure at Chicago’s City Council, "It's often said that roll calls could stop after Roti votes-the outcome is already known. Roti, an affable fellow, controls the Chicago City Council with an iron fist.”
In August of 1999, the Justice Department named Alderman Fred Roti as a “high ranking made member” of the Chicago Mob. Roti’s mission was to hijack the political system and load up Chicago’s government and labor unions with friends, relatives, and Chicago Mob associates. Roti succeeded in his mission. Today, in 2008, Roti’s friends and relatives still make the news for their ability to get caught up in scandal.
Chicago political corruption is not merely a colorful historical artifact. Alderman Roti’s friends and relatives remain at the forefront of recent political scandals. Chicago’s Hired Truck program, under which private trucks were hired to do city work, lead to several felony convictions. Many of the trucks hired did no work but were paid taxpayer dollars. The Chicago Sun-Times reported 17 trucking companies in the Hired Truck program had ties to the Roti family. Roti relative Nick “the Stick” LoCoco was the boss of the program. Nick LoCoco was a Mob bookie in charge of the $40 Million a year program.
Alderman Roti’s prolific criminal legacy includes getting Chicago Police Officer William Hanhardt appointed Chief of Detectives. Hanhardt was the Chicago Mob’s long term plant on the force. With Hanhardt as Chief of Detectives, the Chicago Mob had a person who could promote corrupt cops and control criminal investigations. Before and after leaving the Chicago Police force in 1986, Hanhardt ran the most successful jewelry theft ring in United States history which he ran until he was indicted in 2000.
U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar described Hanhardt's operation,“Hanhardt's organization surpasses, in duration and sophistication, just about any other jewelry theft ring we've seen." John Kass of The Chicago Tribune recently described the Hanhardt legacy as an illustration of what he called “the Chicago way.” U.S Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald reminded everyone when Hanhardt pled guilty in 2001 of the danger of William Hanhardt, "It's remarkable that a person who was chief of detectives of the Chicago Police Department admits to being part of a racketeering conspiracy."
In July of 2006, the Justice Department convicted top Daley administration officials for running a massive illegal political patronage operation. Robert Sorich , one of Mayor Daley’s top aids, was convicted of running a massive political scheme in which favored political patronage workers were placed on Chicago’s payroll. As The New York Times reported, “the scheme involved sham interviews, falsified ratings forms and the destruction of files to cover it up.”. One of Alderman Roti’s nephews, Bruno Caruso, was the second most successful individual in terms of getting people jobs. In 1999, according to The Chicago Sun-Times, the FBI named Bruno Caruso as a “made member” of The Chicago Mob.
The people who run Chicago today still have a soft spot for mobsters
Six weeks after being named a high ranking “made member” of the Chicago Mob, Roti died. One of the first orders of business when the City Council met on September 29,1999 was to honor his life with a resolution supported by the two most important political figures in Chicago, Mayor Daley and Alderman Ed Burke. The resolution called “Fred B.Roti, a committed public servant, a cherished friend of many and good neighbor to all, will be greatly missed and fondly remembered by his many family members, friends and associates” and Roti “is remembered as a kind, considerate person, who had great love for his family and community.”
In the summer of 2007, the Justice Department brought one of their largest Mob trials in years. It was dubbed the Family Secrets trial for charging the mob with 18 unsolved murders. This historic trial indicted the entire Chicago Mob as a racketeering enterprise. Not only did Alderman Roti‘s name come up at the trial, but the name of his nephew Fred Barbara also surfaced. Fred Barbara was accused of taking part in bombing a business. Barbara was described by The Chicago Sun-Times as “a close friend of Mayor Daley's”.
Senator Obama’s relationship with Tony Rezko is much more significant than his association with a bunch of radicals. Obama decided joining the status quo in Chicago was an excellent career move. Tony Rezko’s ties to the Chicago’s establishment are the basis of a major Justice Department investigation titled Operation Board Games. As Rezko’s career shows, Chicago remains a town very much cast in the spirit of Alderman Roti.
This machine has had far more to do with the rise of Barack Obama’s political career than Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright and the equally unseemly radicals who so unnerve some right-wingers. In contrast, the implications of his close ties to the Chicago machine may tell us more about the man, and the kind of people he might bring into the highest offices.
Except for an occasional article on Tony Rezko, Obama’s ability to work with, and to nurture his own place within one of the most corrupt regimes in nation has not been a major political issue. Some of this may reflect the press’s infatuation with the man and his well-crafted image; it also suggests the incompetence of the McCain campaign.
But those of us who will be living with a President Obama for the next four years should consider the implications of his Chicago connection. At very least, his ability to cohabit with the machine says something of his deft ability to talk one way – as a change agent – and to walk another.
It does not mean that Senator Obama himself is corrupt or even intellectually dishonest. And perhaps his ability to work with the machine suggests a skill that may be useful in dealing with the many thugs who run powerful regimes around the world. Yet it also suggests that, when push comes to shove, he could be more likely to say ‘yes’ to power rather than speak truth to it.
Steve Bartin is a resident of Cook County and native who blogs regularly about urban affairs at http://nalert.blogspot.com. He works in Internet sales.