"Anyone who pays a dime of city taxes should be dismayed by the conduct of these city employees," city inspector general David Hoffman said at a press conference at the federal courthouse Thursday afternoon. He spoke just after “Pat”—as he called U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald—announced bribery charges [see links on right] against 15 people, including seven city employees, stemming from an investigation that started in Hoffman’s office more than a year ago.
“These employees of the buildings department and the zoning department are paid good salaries with excellent benefits,” Hoffman said. “Their jobs were to make sure that the building codes and the zoning ordinances were laws that protect city residents. But what they actually did with their jobs was to make sure the laws were violated. Everything was the exact opposite of the way it should be. The people who we the taxpayers were paying to protect us were actually using their jobs to make sure regular taxpayers got hurt and corrupt real estate developers benefited.”
To anyone who’s ever walked into a building in the city of Chicago, that’s serious stuff, and it should be encouraging to everyone sick of being shaken down for more taxes that at least a few sources of the waste may get it. Even better, Fitzgerald as much as said that there could be more charges on the way.
“There is a problem here bigger than the complaints issued today,” he said, and the investigations into it are not done. “If you were one of those people taking bribes the last few years, you ought to be uncomfortable right now.”
But reformers may not want to get too giddy over the new day coming.
When you read the complaints closely, it’s pretty clear that the feds are going after low-hanging fruit here. It’s rotten fruit, sure. But if there’s a culture of corruption in place—and Fitzgerald and Hoffman certainly sounded like they were describing one Thursday afternoon—I for one don’t see its roots being pulled up by these charges.
According to the feds’ primary source, an “expediter” and “bagman”—i.e., payoff guy—referred to in federal documents as CW1, developers and contractors regularly bribe employees in the city’s departments of buildings, zoning, and construction and permits to speed up the process of signing off on their plans. “Time is money,” as Fitzgerald explained.
In the complaints, though, this “scheme” sounds like it’s being executed by a bunch of louts in a B movie. Most of the bribes detailed are for $100 or $200, though some inspectors held out for bigger stakes: “CW1 advised that it is a common practice for contractors and developers to bribe city officials by providing tickets to sporting events and that CW1 has in the past attended Chicago Bulls basketball games along with certain City of Chicago inspectors.” In one case, an allegedly corrupt developer almost didn’t get his work pushed along because he wasn't sure he could come up with seats to a Bears game that a buildings department official wanted. He breathed a sigh of relief when the official had a death in the family that prevented her from being able to go, and got to work on rounding up Bulls tickets instead.
The feds said payoffs were made in such sinister locales as a Starbucks, the street outside a bank’s ATM lobby, and the entrance to a Payless Shoes store. It should be noted, though, that one was allegedly made outside of “Oprah’s place”—the Wishbone restaurant in the West Loop—because a city employee, Phyllis Mendenhall, no longer thought it appropriate to receive envelopes at her city office.
“I’m going to be stopping by to bring you something,” developer Beny Garneata allegedly told her in a phone conversation recorded by federal officials.
“You know, we can’t, you know we can’t accept anything now,” Mendenhall said.
“We can’t accept anything. You know, the, we got new rules.”
“Yah, I heard.”
“Okay, all right well. What time you’ll be by?”
And so go the “new rules.”
Which raises for me the real question out of all this: Who was supervising these people? Who, due to incompetence or something more malign, let this potentially dangerous and totally lame third-rate corruption go on? If there continues to be a culture of selling city services to even the lowest bidder, then who’s created it—who’s tolerated it? If the mayor really is the boss—if he can bully aldermen into making asses of themselves, parks officials into slicing off chunks of public land for private organizations (and then paying to keep them public after all), and planning commissioners into prioritizing his interests regardless of the public's—then how does this possibly exist without tolerance from the top? Really, I don’t get it—will someone please explain? Is it really that hard to get rid of this nonsense? Or is that just the cost of living in a city that’s not Detroit?
I certainly won’t wait to get an answer from the mayor, and Patrick Fitzgerald and David Hoffman were both too cautious to address it in their press conference today. So I guess I’ll leave it open for voters. If you get it, please let me know.