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Alderman Depicts Chicago's Venal Side

His wiretapped conversations offer rare look at corruption. Talks break code of colleagues' private talks with constituents.

May 14, 1996|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — The aldermen of the Chicago City Council are not a breed known to bury their nose in reading material.

But many seem to have wangled photocopies of a 53-page guilty plea entered recently by a former South Side alderman who is informing against them in a mushrooming political scandal--and whose wiretapped conversations provide a rare peek into the coded language of municipal corruption.

The onetime colleagues of Allan K. Streeter, who resigned after pleading guilty to taking $37,000 in bribes, did not mince words when they learned he had worn a hidden tape recorder for months as he guided FBI undercover agents as part of the government's massive Silver Shovel probe of city payoffs.

"He's a rat," said Alderman William Beavers. "Judas," said colleague Patrick Huels. Veteran North Side Alderman Bernard L. Stone was so apoplectic that he kept discarding insults to come up with new ones: "Lowlife." "Pimp." "Judas goat."

But as furious as the aldermen were when they learned of Streeter's traitorous turn, many were equally outraged, as Huels complained, that he had been the "first to break the code" governing private talks with favor-seeking constituents.

Streeter's 250 taped conversations were distilled into a plea argument that has become the Rosetta Stone of the council's behind-the-scenes braggadocio--a document showing how "Chicago's time-honored tradition of political corruption has not vanished," said U.S. Atty. James B. Burns, who is overseeing the probe.

The Silver Shovel investigation, which grew out of a federal probe of illegal dumping in poor Chicago neighborhoods, is in its grand jury infancy. But 23 current and former aldermen have been served subpoenas, and two of the council's 50 aldermen, Streeter and Ambrosio Medrano, have pleaded guilty.

As he introduced an FBI undercover agent and an informant to a succession of council colleagues and other Chicago-area officials, Streeter was careful to tutor both men in the intricacies of bribery.

To an alderman, it seems, the word "no" often means "yes."

Streeter explained as alderman he had "learned a different language, a different code, how to say no and yes at the same time." To the FBI agent who accompanied him, he said: "Stick around, young man; you're learning."

When an alderman tells a supplicant, " 'It's really not necessary,' that means they want it," Streeter tutored. "What they're saying is, 'Yes.' It's a separate language. That's in case somebody is listening in on the conversation. They have a disclaimer."

*

As Streeter linked up FBI informants with dozens of aldermen and other officials, he referred constantly to the possible presence of wiretaps--an ironic bit of paranoia considering his own willingness to wear a wire.

The continuing two-decade carousel of federal probes in Chicago--Operation Greylord, the 1980s probe of corrupt local judges, and Operation Gambat, a more recent investigation of lawyers and aldermen--has left even seemingly clean-living aldermen jittery.

Bernie Stone, a 23-year council stalwart, has come through it all unscathed. Rolling his eyes at the mention of Streeter's name, Stone admitted that wiretaps have become an intrusive presence for aldermen.

For years, Stone said, he would make a little joke when he slid into his regular booth at Counselor's Row, the lunchtime haunt across the street from City Hall. Stone would tap on a corner hatrack and murmur, "Good morning, fellas." It always got a laugh from his friend, 1st Ward Alderman Fred Roti.

"Some joke," Stone says now. There was a microphone--not in the hatrack but in a nearby public telephone. Worse, a video camera was hidden in the booth itself. And the tapes gathered enough evidence to put Roti away for four years.

Stone and many colleagues are convinced that federal agents released Streeter's tapes for one reason: "They're trying to create the atmosphere to make the City Council of Chicago look bad."

*

Neutral observers provide a less-conspiratorial view. Alan Gitelson, a professor of political science at Loyola University, said the excerpts "demonstrate the full color of the case" and inform probe targets that "the Feds know exactly how life really works inside the council--and that they'd better come clean now."

Prosecutors are circumspect about the Streeter tapes, saying they were used only to provide the legal underpinnings for the charges. "We wanted to lay a detailed foundation for the court [that would provide] the extent of the evidence in this case," said Randall Samborn, a spokesman for Burns.

Fred Foreman, a Chicago lawyer who was Burns' predecessor as U.S. attorney here and who launched the Silver Shovel probe, cautioned that Streeter's blunt assessment of the aldermen's tough talk does "not indict them all."

In his office, Stone sits unconvinced. Next to a growing pile of council memos is a framed picture of Roti, signed before he went off to prison. "To my friend, true and loyal," it reads.

They are not words Stone would use about Streeter.

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