- Paul Boyle/Getty Images
- Full disclosure, Daley style: “I guess it’s me, if it is.”
I recently reconnected with a beloved old mentor, and as we were catching up by e-mail, he asked me in passing if I’m politically active. “About Chicago politics, don’t get me started,” I wrote back. “But believe me, the Chicago way (i.e., blatant nepotism, corruption, insiders making big bucks off us little guys) is alive and well.” Shortly afterward, I headed off to work, copy of that day’s Sun-Times in tow to read on the train.
Well, what do you know? A sentence of 17 months in prison had been handed to Anthony Duffy, a plumbing contractor who omitted the names of former mayor Richard M. Daley’s son Patrick and nephew Robert Vanecko (not to be confused with indicted Daley nephew Richard “R.J.” Vanecko) from the list of owners of his sewer company, which was awarded millions of dollars in contracts with the city. Three cheers for justice? Hardly. At the hearing Duffy told the judge that when he’d learned about the Daley family’s involvement he’d questioned it, only to be told that it was “above his pay grade” to be concerned about such things as legality. As it happens, no member of the Daley family has been charged with any crime in connection with the deal. But Duffy’s own lawyer denied that his client was taking a fall for anybody, saying that “the mayor, of course, didn’t have anything to do with” the bogus minority contract the city signed off on with what he nevertheless described as “a wink and a nod.”
There’s a lot our former mayor didn’t have anything to do with.
A few pages later Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown gave us the lowdown on some interesting testimony in another recent case. Former Chicago corporation counsel Mara Georges, described by Brown as “something of a human flak jacket” for Mayor Daley, gave a deposition this summer in connection with the city’s ongoing lawsuit against Park Grill, the obscenely lucrative Millennium Park concession that was the source of a scandal far more juicy than any dirty sewer scheme. As Brown put it,
You know the story of the Park Grill. Guy meets girl. Guy owns a restaurant. Girl handles valuable Park District restaurant concession. Guy and girl make a baby together. Guy gets concession deal. Mayor knows nothing. Nothing! But a bunch of his pals invest in what city lawyers later call a ‘sweetheart deal.’
If the boss knew nothing, who then was to blame for a contract that handed the prime concession spot in Millennium Park to a group whose investors happened to include several Daley relatives and business cronies? As Georges tells it, she was—or at least she was the person Daley fingered when put on the spot by a bunch of pesky reporters. Told to get to a press conference pronto, she said,
I walked up onto the stage, stood next to the mayor, and he was asked, I believe it was by Fran Spielman, ‘Mayor, who’s to blame for this fiasco?’
And he pointed at me and said, ‘She is.’
And I whispered to him, ‘Mr. Mayor, they’re asking you who’s to blame for the Park Grill concession agreement.’
And he said very loudly, ‘I heard them. You’re to blame.’
Even though the deal had been negotiated, not by Georges, but by Park District lawyers, she stepped up, telling the press, “Perhaps I should have been more aware of what the Park District was doing.”
It’s called taking a bullet.
Georges—now by wild coincidence a partner in the longtime family law firm rechristened with the handle Daley & Georges—showed in her deposition that she has a much better memory than the former mayor, who appears to find it hard even to recognize himself in a photo.
As the Reader‘s Ben Joravsky writes in his most recent column, in Daley’s own deposition he claims “a staggering degree of amnesia,” offering answers including “I don’t recall,” “I couldn’t say,” “I wouldn’t know,” and—instant classic—”I don’t know what I knew.” But our former mayor outdid himself when showed a photo of a group of VIP attendees at Park Grill’s grand opening. Among them was a person most Chicagoans would handily identify as our former mayor.
Do you recognize yourself in that picture? he was asked under oath. “It’s kind of blurry,” said our former mayor. “I guess it’s me, if it is.”
I confess I once found humor in these sorts of absurdities. The Reader used to run regular features under the apt rubrics Council Follies and Aldermania, where our reporters would revel in the antics and foibles of aldercreatures such as Dorothy “the Hat” Tillman and Burton Natarus. Even more-serious scandals here tend to have colorful characters, colorful language, and outrageous details—Chicago’s the city that has given the world “fucking golden,” after all. Toronto mayor Rob Ford may smoke crack, but can he top drug-fueled sex parties in the Purple Hotel? And where else would a once up-and-coming congressman and his glamorous alderman wife be brought down by a couple of elk heads and some Bruce Lee memorabilia?
But of course there’s nothing funny about pay to play, tax fraud, or rich pols wasting the money of people who give it to them, be they suckers or members of the ubi est mea crowd.
And there’s nothing funny at all about no-bid contracts and shady deals that make the Park Grill millions look like bubkes—the parking meter deal our former mayor ushered in, for one. I’m guessing the $454 million contract that’s currently screwing us over may ultimately take the cake even for Chicago.
I refer to the ongoing disaster that is the Ventra rollout, and if you haven’t run into any problems with it yet, I feel confident assuring you your time will come. We don’t yet know why the perfectly good Chicago Card program was scrapped in favor of a system-wide overhaul oursourced to a California company. If the red-light camera deal/$2 million bribery scandal is any indication, there will have been some major swag involved.
In the meantime, where the parking meter deal affects only those with the means to drive, the Ventra fiasco is sticking it to the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Go to the Ventra office at 165 N. Jefferson and you’ll see handicapped people, seniors, non-native speakers, students, and the working poor all trying to navigate a system that (take my word for it) can foil even the credit-card-bearing technologically savvy. Not everyone takes it lying down—one older gentleman who got turned away empty-handed burst out with “I hope this whole thing dies,” to laughter from some of the two dozen or so people waiting in line. What stays with me, though, is the young woman with magenta hair who’d lost $20 cash to a Ventra machine. Whatever she wound up doing at the Ventra service window, it clearly cost her dearly, and as she turned to leave she couldn’t keep down the tears. “Now I have no more money,” she wailed before bolting toward the door, face crumbling.
Like I said, don’t get me started.