Feds indict Chicago alderman for trading city favors for home improvements

Feds indict Chicago alderman for trading city favors for home improvements

Chicago’s second-longest-serving alderman became the third sitting Chicago City Council member to come under federal indictment. She faces bribery charges.

Chicago Ald. Carrie Austin and her chief of staff were indicted July 1 by a federal grand jury, charged with conspiring to accept home improvements from a construction contractor seeking city assistance on a real-estate development in Austin’s 34th ward.

In exchange for aldermanic subsidies and support, charges state Austin and chief staffer Chester Wilson Jr. received new kitchen cabinets, granite countertops, sump pumps, bathroom tiling and a heating and cooling system at little to no cost. Federal agents raided Austin’s office in 2019.

A federal grand jury in Chicago charged Austin, 72, with one count of conspiring to use interstate facilities to promote bribery, two counts of using interstate facilities to promote bribery and one count of lying to the FBI.

Wilson, 55, was also charged with conspiring to use interstate facilities to promote bribery, two counts of using interstate facilities to promote bribery and a separate count of theft of government funds.

The indictment states Austin and Wilson first accepted personal benefits in 2016 from developers contracted by the city to build a $49.6 million residential complex in Austin’s far South Side ward.

The 19-page indictment alleges Wilson texted a contractor a picture of kitchen cabinets Austin wanted installed in her home on Dec. 8, 2016. A few months later, Austin put her support behind resurfacing city streets in the development. By late June, the contractor had paid $5,250 for Austin’s new cabinets after falsely claiming they were for the development.

Austin charged with wielding her aldermanic influence since to approve payments from Chicago infrastructure funds to the developer, line up building permits for the development and fight to release $10.5 million in tax increment financing payments from the city to the developer’s bank.

On July 5, 2017, Austin solicited a developer for “white or vein white” tiles for a “five by seven” bathroom in her house, charges state. A day later, the alderman accepted a developer’s offer to purchase “brand new” and “expensive” sump pumps.

Wilson is also alleged to have sought personal favors from the construction company for investment properties he owns.

According to the indictment, during a phone call about changes to tax increment financing that would benefit the company months after the exchange, Wilson told the developer to “make sure they do my heating and air.” The developer later offered to pay for part of the HVAC system at Wilson’s rental property, reportedly texting an associate, “If I get what I want next week, it’s worth it.”

The theft charge against Wilson alleges he engaged in a separate scheme to purchase food stamp benefits he did not qualify for. Wilson allegedly obtained a benefits card by paying an eligible recipient less than the card’s value in cash.

Austin is the second-longest-serving member on the city council after Ald. Edward Burke, who was indicted on 14 countsof federal racketeering charges in 2019. The indictment against him alleges he used his aldermanic influence to steer business to his private law firm.

Austin is now the third sitting City Council member under federal investigation after criminal charges were levied against Chicago Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson earlier this year. Thompson is the grandson of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The seven-count indictment against Thompson accuses him of filing false tax returns and lying to federal banking regulators about $219,000 in payments he had received from Washington Federal Bank for Savings before it closed in 2017.

Over 30 Chicago aldermen have been linked to corruption cases since the 1970s.

Chicago ranks as the country’s most corrupt city and Illinois is the second-most corrupt state in the nation. That corruption comes with a heavy price tag for the state economy – costing Illinoisans more than $550 million in foregone economic activity per year.

Not only does this cost all Illinois taxpayers, but it shakes residents’ faith in state and local politicians. The ongoing federal corruption probes are a reminder that Illinois has a lot of work ahead to undo the political culture of corruption.

Chicagoans deserve city leaders who do business above the table, not a leader who would trade their trust for a new countertop.

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