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By Chicago Standards, Rosty Looks Honest : Scandal: Politics in the Windy City offers an advanced class in kickbacks. Among these masters, Rostenkowski is purely minor league.

August 01, 1993|Ben Joravsky | Ben Joravsky, a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, is author of "Race and Politics in Chicago." He is now writing a book about the Roosevelt Rough Riders, a high-school basketball team in Chicago

CHICAGO — It sounds jaded, but there's not a lot of outrage around here over Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and his House Post Office scandal. Certainly, no one is surprised. Despite his power and prestige in the Capitol--chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and vital to passage of Bill Clinton's economic package--at heart, he's just another Chicago pol. Sooner or later, they all take a fall--or so it seems.

It's not even an interesting scandal, at least by Chicago standards. Real corruption is a raw, almost sensual experience, something you can taste, touch and smell. We're pretty selective about these things, with so much to choose from, going back to Mayor Fred A. Busse, a turn-of-the-century Republican, who owned stock in the company that, coincidentally, sold the city its manhole covers.

And then there was Alderman Tom Keane, old "squinty eyes" himself, who once said of his buddy, Mayor Richard J. Daley: "Daley wanted power, and I wanted to make money, and we both succeeded." In the 1970s, Keane was sent to prison after he used his clout to buy almost 2,000 parcels of tax-delinquent property that he then sold, at considerable profit, to various public agencies.

In the past 20 years, about 400 people in the city have been convicted for various kickbacks, shakedowns or frauds. That includes 20-odd judges, 18 aldermen, one governor, a press aide to the first Mayor Daley, a political aide to former Mayor Harold Washington, the most recent city clerk, and countless cops, clerks and inspectors of all races, creeds and colors.

Some do it for love, trading sex for jobs, but most do it for money. It seems like there's a different scandal every night--an endless parade of rigged bids, fixed contracts, crooked cops, convoluted land deals, building-inspection shakedowns and bought judges. One inept alderman actually paid a bribe to help two relatives pass a fire-department entrance exam. How could he not know that aldermen are supposed to take bribes, not pay them?

The feds are always running some entrapment scam. They call them "operations." We've had Operation Incubator, Operation Lantern, Operation Greylord, Operation Phocus and, well, I think that's it. You lose track after a while.

As for Rostenkowski, he's been unofficially accused of allegedly converting about $21,300 worth of stamps (obtained free from the House Post Office). What he did, if he did it, is definitely unethical and probably illegal. I say we vote him out of office, with or without an indictment. Just for being so arrogant and dumb.

But as scandals go, it's ho-hum. It doesn't even involve a stoolie. How can you have a scandal without a stoolie--preferably an old, bald guy, fat and sweaty, with a microphone taped to his hairy chest? A guy like Robert J. Cooley, for example. These days he's living under a new identity in the federal witness-protection program. But in his heyday, Cooley was one of those fixers, his pockets stuffed with cash, who stalks the courthouse halls. He claimed to have bought off judges, prosecutors, court clerks and cops. He says he once bribed a judge in the restroom of a restaurant, slipping his honor $2,500 in cash (always cash, no checks--never, ever put anything in writing) to fix the murder trial of an alleged mob hit man. It doesn't get more audacious than that.

For three years, starting in 1986, Cooley secretly recorded the payoffs he made to such crooked politicians as Alderman Fred Roti, who he wooed over lunch in a greasy spoon across the street from City Hall. I ate at that restaurant every once in a while, and when I did, I'd see Roti and his gang: pasty, beady-eyed, lumpy little men, sitting in the vinyl-covered corner booth near the front. They smothered their bread with butter and showered their soup with salt and huddled close to the table so no one could overhear.

They played Cooley's tapes at Roti's trial. It's beautiful dialogue, mostly grunts oozing with sleaze. At one point, Cooley counts out the payoff, identifying the currency, and you can almost see Roti swelling with satisfaction as he watches Cooley finger the cash.

With Cooley calling so much attention to the bills, you wonder why Roti didn't catch on. That's a tough question--sort of like asking why politicians fall from grace in the first place. Maybe they're mesmerized by the money. Maybe they think they're invincible. Maybe they want too much to believe what stoolies tell them: You are the big-shot people have to see to make things happen.

Rostenkowski's case has no such drama. He's not like, say, Perry Hutchinson, a onetime alderman from a working-class, black ward on the city's far south side. Hutchinson ran and lost twice for alderman before he eked out a victory in 1983. I visited Hutchinson's office soon after. He was giddy with excitement. "One day I'm gonna run for mayor," he boldly predicted. "Just you watch."

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