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Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Dynamics of Political Corruption

It has been said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In my fair city, Chicago, our mayor, Richard M. Daley, rules it much like a king. For instance, he won the last election with over 70% of the vote against two other candidates. While we technically live in a Democracy here in Chicago, the political realities are such that Mayor Daley will be our mayor for as long as he wants. He has not only survived scandals that ruin most political careers but has frankly thrived despite them. Such scandals as the hired truck scandal, patronage by point man Robert Sorich, and several top deputies under indictment or investigation, Daley is NOT a politcal boy scout in the manner in which he runs the city. Pundits have long predicted each scandal as his eventual downfall.

Even amid Chicago's storied reputation for corruption, this has been an unusually significant and far-reaching investigation involving 30 indictments and 23 convictions. Those charged have included a top official at the mayor's office of intergovernmental affairs and the former deputy water commissioner, who pleaded guilty to taking bribes, shaking down companies for political contributions, and rigging hiring. With a number of cooperating witnesses, including the water czar, the investigation is far from over.

What's remarkable is that for the first time, Mayor Richard M. Daley seems politically vulnerable. His approval ratings are the lowest since he was elected in 1989. Beneath the apparent cynicism over corruption, many Chicagoans seem genuinely to care about the finding and don't accept his repeated statements that he has nothing to do with hiring. One Republican official even offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could provide information leading to Mr. Daley's conviction. The next election is two years away, but the notion of a legitimate challenger and potential Daley defeat - once a laughable premise - is now an open discussion.

That article is from 2005, and that "open discussion", led to two candidates combining for less than 30% of the vote. The political reality in Chicago is that winning means you stick with Daley. I give everyone this background so they can understand the context of the brewing political brawl going on in Chicago.I give a special hat tip to Chicago's artsy "underground" newspaper the Chicago Reader for this story. In many ways, this story has all of the cynical elements of Chicago politics: backroom deals, powerful people protecting each other, and other elements of corruption. At its roots is an all powerful mayor and the political dynamics that creates.
The Reader picks it up with this...

Corporation counsel Mara Georges works for Chicago’s taxpayers, of course. It’s pretty to think that inside City Hall keeping us happy is everybody’s job number one.But seriously, who gets to give her orders? The Department of Law, which Georges oversees, is an “executive department of the municipal government”—to quote the municipal code. So Georges works for the city’s top executive—the mayor who appointed her.

The City Council advises on and consents to that appointment, and the municipal code goes on to say that “the corporation counsel shall have authority, when directed by the city council, to make settlements of lawsuits and controverted claims against the city.”So Georges works for the City Council too, and when it says “settle” she’s supposed to settle. How odd, then, that at the moment she won’t even settle with the City Council.The municipal code also directs the corporation counsel to “protect the rights and interests of the city in all actions, suits and proceedings brought by or against it or any city officer, board or department.” That means Georges works for the police, to name the department whose chestnuts most frequently need to be pulled out of the fire.

At issue is a list of so called "rogue" police officers, those with ten or more citations in the last five years, that the city council is demanding and the city refuses to hand over. In such a case, it is unclear where the loyalties of the City's Corporate Counsel may lie. In this specific case, it is clear where this particular Corporate Counsel's, Mara Georges, loyalties lie. She has represented the police department against the city council every step of the way.

The Chicago Police Department has had several high profile incidents of malfeasance recently. Thus, one could make the case that revealing the names of so called rotten apples would go a long way toward restoring the reputation of a force that for the most part has done good work.
By withholding such a list, the city and the department only perpetuate the image of a force out of control. (an image that I don't for one believe is the reality) The case is one that only a lawyer could follow or enjoy bouncing between Circuit Courts and Appeals Courts with each deciding jurisdiction. The outcome so far seems to be that the names will continue to be remain protected.

Despite what appears to be an overriding issue of public good and right to know, Georges continues to use ambiguous legal arguements to justify taking such a stand. Here is how her representative in the last hearing George Yamin put it.

You know, to represent the City of Chicago it is very ambiguous to say who are—you know, who wants—who our actual clients are. And I think it should be—we have—the relief we have asked for is not unreasonable.”

To me at least, this case comes down to who has more power within the dynamics of the city's political structure. In our city the City Council needs Mayor Richard Daley a lot more than vice versa. Thus, when given a choice of sides most operatives a la Mara Georges choose Daley.

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