You know Mayor Daley has a big fat scandal on his hands when not one, not two, but three aldermanic proposals about it are introduced at a single City Council meeting–precisely what happened last week with the now notorious Hired Truck Program. As Alderman Brian Doherty explained, “It’s kind of embarrassing to us also that this happened, and we’re looking to cover our butts.” They say three is a trend, but how long will official outrage be all the rage?

Readers will recall that a Sun-Times series recently exposed the Hired Truck Program as a $40 million annual festival of nepotism, patronage, and mob influence. The city leases trucks from politically connected companies for hauling waste and other materials, but the trucks often stand idle all day long. City officials knew that after a 1997 audit, and hired Ernst & Young to analyze the program and suggest ways to fix it. Ernst & Young filed its report in 1998. Apparently few if any of its recommendations were implemented.

In conversations during and after last week’s meeting, many aldermen said they believe the Hired Truck fiasco is in a whole other league from previous Daley administration scandals. The phrase “it’s got legs” was in vogue, for several reasons.

Two days after the Sun-Times series started, the FBI arrested Angelo Torres, who headed the Hired Truck Program until his transfer to another city department late last year, after the Sun-Times began digging. Torres is a former gang member who in two years went from booting cars for the city to directing the Hired Truck Program. He’s associated with the powerful pro-Daley Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO), a political group that gets out the vote. On January 26 the U.S. attorney’s office charged Torres with attempted extortion for allegedly demanding a bribe from a company to get some Hired Truck work. Prosecutors subpoenaed City Hall for Hired Truck records the same day. Turns out the feds had also been investigating the program.

For Mayor Daley the Hired Truck scandal is “possibly the same thing as with George Ryan,” said one alderman. “There were small problems, but they just keep growing.” Another alderman agreed, saying, “The only thing you don’t have in this case, you don’t have any dead children.” And with the federal investigation, the alderman added, “this could drag on for years as they put pressure on the lower-level people to sing on the midlevel guys, and then pressure on the midlevel guys to sing on the top-level guys. The revelations could be coming out for months if not years from now.”

Former city budget director William Abolt resigned under fire for the scandal, but nobody figures he was actually responsible. “I believe that the parties involved had enough clout that commissioners and the budget director were being stymied in their attempts to clean up the problem,” said an alderman as we stood outside the council chambers. Mayor Daley was sitting directly on the other side of the wall from us. “That’s what I believe, 100 percent. By the guy sitting there,” the alderman added, pointing discreetly at the wall.

Scandalously wasted tax dollars are never politically hip, but right now that type of corruption is in especially bad taste. Constituents are already in a tizzy over skyrocketing tax assessments. The city’s 38,000 workers are livid over the approximately 800 jobs eliminated by Daley’s 2004 budget, an unpaid furlough day this year for 8,000 union employees, and Daley’s recent proposal to freeze city contributions to the workers’ health insurance plan for four years. Put it all together and a fad is born–three challenging resolutions from a normally tame City Council:

Alderman Richard Mell wants to require the administration to begin providing the council with quarterly reports on the Hired Truck Program by June 30 and post the information on the city’s Web site, where a number of documents relating to the program have already been disclosed.

Alderman Patrick O’Connor called for a council budget committee hearing featuring city auditor Robert Benson, appointed by Daley to fix the Hired Truck Program after the scandal broke.

Aldermen Joe Moore and Ricardo Munoz want the city to adopt the provisions of the Illinois Whistleblower Reward and Protection Act to help root out public corruption. Under the terms of the act, says Moore, whistle-blowers are not only protected but also get up to 30 percent of any money recovered from people or companies found to be defrauding the government. The city can recover triple its actual damages.

By contrast, the aldermen merely grumbled privately about Daley’s surprise late-night attack on Meigs Field last March 30, though the mayor’s brazen show of power drew condemnation from around the country. Last June, Alderman Moore introduced a resolution calling for a public hearing on the Meigs destruction. No one really noticed, and the resolution remains buried in the council’s aviation committee, chaired by Alderman Patrick Levar, a Daley ally.

Moore and Munoz also requested hearings on the mass arrests of protesters at the antiwar demonstration that shut down Lake Shore Drive last March. Protesters insisted police failed to let them disperse and swept up scores of bystanders. Daley staunchly defended the arrests, calling the police’s actions “very lenient.” Moore and Munoz couldn’t get a committee hearing on that either. They finally held their own ad hoc hearings in June.

What about their current proposal? Moore says he introduced an almost identical whistle-blower measure after an earlier Daley administration scandal–he can’t even remember which one–“and it went nowhere.” This time John Doerrer, Daley’s director of intergovernmental affairs, promised Moore the administration would work with him to try to pass the resolution at the next council meeting. If attempts at damage control are any indication, then Daley’s people see this scandal as different too.

It figures that Moore and Munoz introduced one of the Hired Truck resolutions–they’re two of the usual suspects in the council’s scanty independent bloc. Mell and O’Connor, on the other hand, are not. O’Connor is a loyal Daley ally, rewarded with chairmanship of the council’s education committee. Mell, a wealthy council veteran with his own well-oiled political organization–and now the father-in-law of Governor Rod Blagojevich–has his own agenda, but normally he’s firmly in Daley’s camp. The mayor trusted him with coordinating the ward remap in 2002, an obviously sensitive political assignment.

But Mell and O’Connor have the same problem with the Hired Truck scandal as their colleagues. “They’re getting the shit kicked out of ’em at these block clubs and community meetings,” noted one alderman. Mell told me he introduced his Hired Truck proposal so “people in the community believe that we don’t just roll over for everything.”

There’s also the HDO factor. Headed by Daley’s former political enforcer, Victor Reyes, HDO has become a formidable rival to every other political organization. The group includes three aldermen–freshmen Ariel Reboyras and George Cardenas, as well as Danny Solis, who was made president pro tem of the council by Daley in 2001, even though he was then just the junior member of the council’s Latino caucus.

At last week’s council meeting Mell told reporters that HDO’s influence in city government is “maybe out of control.” His colleagues agree–especially, said one council member, “a number of aldermen who’ve been ignored and pushed to the side while HDO’s filled all the spots.” Asked whether he’d signed on to Mell’s proposal about the Hired Truck Program, another alderman joked, “No, I signed on to the Mell thing against HDO.”

Clearly Mell wants to send a message to Daley as well as to voters in his own ward. However, he seemed oddly conflicted about that message. When Channel Seven’s Andy Shaw asked him for an interview, Mell snapped, “No, I don’t talk to you.” Several requests later Mell told Shaw he wasn’t doing any TV interviews because he didn’t want his resolution to be the biggest story of the council meeting. Which of course it was.

Perhaps Mell’s ambivalence had something to do with the Sun-Times’s list of the top ten politicians who got political contributions from Hired Truck companies since 1996. Mell came in at number four with $40,830. Daley was number one, at $108,575.

So we’ll see how the council’s new fashion statement holds up. Keeping up with the latest styles can get to be expensive. And if the public heat on the Hired Truck Program dies down, playing watchdog could become passe no matter how many resolutions the aldermen pass.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.