Wednesday, September 14, 2005

SIDEBAR: How Chicago corruption works up close

Note: SIDEBAR is the term I use when talking about my personal experiences that relate in someway to news of the day. In news reporting, it refers to a secondary feature, usually in a "box," that highlights a facet of the primary news story. It is borrowed from the legal profession, when judges and attorneys stand to the side of the public "bar" (judge's bench) to engage in an unrecorded private discussion.

I grew up in Chicago, spending my life under the Daley family "machine." One of the reasons corruption is difficult to pin on the big guys is that after 75 years, the system is so subtle and smooth that it operates more on understandings than direct communication from the top. Everyone knows how the system works, and what is expected of them, without seeking traceable orders. You know, and yet you don't KNOW.

Let me illustrate from one of own experiences. My public affairs/lobbying firm had an engineering consulting firm as a client. The firm had previously done work for Cook County, but had "fallen out of favor." I arranged a meeting for the firm with then County Board President George Dunne. The meeting with George was most cordial. He spoke very encouraging to my clients, and made sure they knew that I was his friend and they were lucky to have me representing them. Actually, I had very little interaction with Dunne, but it was customary to do the lobbyist a favor by boosting him or her with the clients.

After the meeting, Dunne's secretary pulled me aside, and said I should go see Mickey Segal, the head of Near North Insurance, and a well recognized go-to guy for top Democrats and Republicans alike. I inquired why he wanted to see me. The secretary explained that he had is reasons. It was odd, since I had never been invited to visit him before, and knew him only superficially. In fact, I would not have thought he even knew who I was -- and how did he know I was seeing President Dunne?

A couple days later, I kept an appointment with Segal. This was the first time I had ever been to his office. It was huge, and one could hardly miss the life-size naked plastic female sculpture work. I was later told that it was his wife. Geeez, glad I did not know that before the meeting.

Anyway ... Segal assured me that his invitation had nothing ... but nothing to do with whatever business I had with Dunne. I still wondered how he knew of the meeting, and yet was so clueless as to the purpose of the meeting. I let it pass.

Rather, he wanted to talk about Dunne's upcoming fundraiser. He said he was sure with my many friends, I would really help "our buddy George." He even suggested that he thought it would be really great if I could raise $20,000. He was sure I knew someone who could handle that size contribution ... he was very sure.

Dunne was also 42nd ward committeemen, and the funds were to be donated there. It is sort of a secret slush fund the committeemen could keep outside of public scrutiny. It was widely believed that Dunne had millions stashed in his. Now, if Segal really knew me, he would have known that I would need about 200 of my friends to raise $20,000. But, I had the distinct impression that he had a certain donor in mind. Maybe an engineering consulting firm?

At the conclusion of our brief meeting, Segal again reassured me that his request had nothing to do with my business with Dunne -- whatever that was. He had assured me so many times, that I could think of no other reason for the request. He patted me heartily on the back and expressed confidence that I could find someone .... someone with a spare $20,000 to donate to the Dunne committeeman fund.

Now ... did I suspect that there WAS a link between my client's potential and the $20,000 "contribution" to the Dunne committeeman fund? Duh. I told you I was raised in Chicago. I did not suspect it, I was sure of it. I had no doubt the money and the meeting was linked. You have to admire the smoothness of the operation, however. I even imagined what I would be asked by a defense lawyer in court -- and this was long before we had a real U.S. Attorney kicking over rocks to expose the critters below.

Imagine the Defense attorney line of questioning ....

Mr. Horist, did George Dunne send you to Mr. Segal?

Ah .... no ... but ...

Never mind the buts .... just answer the questions. Did Mr. Segal say the money was in return for getting your client some business?

Ah... no ... but ....

No buts! Did Mr. Segal even know what your business with Mr. Dunne was about?

I am sure he did.

Sure! sure! How could you be sure.

You just know.

Ah! I see, Mr. Horist, you "just know" such things. Did Mr. Segal say anything to indicate he knew about your business with Mr. Dunn?

Ah ... no.

But, YOU knew. You could tell. Mr. Horist. Did you know Mr. Segal was a fundraiser for Mr. Dunne before you visited him?


So. You knew of his activities in that area?


So, Mr. Horist, you are saying that Mr. Dunne sent you to see Mr. Segal ... even though he did not. You knew he raised money for Mr. Dunne and others on a regular basis ... but his request to you was because of your meeting with Mr. Dunne. Mr. Segal assured you repeatedly that his request had nothing to do with whatever the business of your meeting with Mr. Dunne ... business that Mr. Segal did not even seem to know about. Is that about right, Mr. Horist?

Well.... yeah.

Mr. Horist, I suggest that you are a bit paranoid, have no basis to claim a link between the money and your business with Mr. Dunne. Maybe, as a Republican, you just want to damage the reputation of these fine upstanding men. It seems to me that Mr. Segal went to extremes to assure you that there was no link, and yet you are convinced that the money was in exchange for a contract -- without one single shred of evidence to support your suspicions. I have no more for this witness, your honor.

Yeah. That is how it would go.

I advised the client of the meeting, and said I would not participate in any money exchange. If they wanted to contact Mr. Segal, they could. I would withdraw representation. They did and I did. Not long after, I learned that the firm had secured a nice piece of county business. I bumped into one of the principals at a social function, and asked if they had made a political contribution through Segal. He smiled and winked as he advised me that it was not a good idea to discuss political contributions.

Immediately, I KNEW they had. But then, I am just a paranoid Republican.

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