March 15, 2013
There's nothing like watching a defense lawyer in federal court playing three-card monte with his mouth.
Sam Adam Jr. didn't set up a table and put three bent cards in front of the federal jury. And he didn't play that other, similar game, the one with the three cups and the pea.
Instead he played the 26th Street defense version, the style Adam uses in Cook County Criminal Court, waving his hands, talking fast and loud, gesturing, talking louder and faster, a style that seems strange under the fluorescent lights of a federal courtroom.
Cook County Commissioner Bill Beavers, an old-school Democratic pol, is the client, indicted on a charge of tax fraud. Opening statements took place Thursday, and federal prosecutors released Beavers' tax records showing he gambled $500,000. Prosecutors say some of the money that Beavers dropped at the casinos was campaign cash that he didn't report as income.
During his opening statement, Adam used a bushel basket full of numbers and the phrases "tax forms" and "his intent" and "only a loan."
Adam's hands gestured faster and faster, as if he were flipping cards, his big voice talking louder and louder, a chunky street lawyer in a light gray suit talking street as if almost by accident, entertaining the jury at least for a bit in that dry federal air.
He tried to play the jury like an old-timey street vegetable peddler, one with a horse-drawn truck — the horse in a straw hat with holes cut for the ears like you see in old newspaper photos — the peddler gesturing, telling wild, naughty stories to the neighborhood ladies to keep their minds off the price of his cucumbers.
"They're going to try to confuse you!" Adam said, gesturing to federal prosecutors after he'd just spent about 20 minutes trying to confuse the jurors. "But don't be confused."
Prosecutors brushed off Beavers' claim that he was simply borrowing the money from his campaign with the intent he'd pay it back.
"That's a lie!" Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Cole told the jury. "This money wasn't taken out (of campaign bank accounts) for election expenses. It was taken out by the defendant for gambling money."
I looked over at Beavers, sitting at the defense table in a natty gray suit, pale blue shirt, yellow tie and matching pocket kerchief. He was as dry and cool as a baby's behind after a good powdering.
Now 78, he still has that gravelly voice and that Billy Dee Williams thing going on. And I pictured him the way I knew him years ago in the early 1980s.
He'd been a Chicago street cop, then a political cop — a driver for city Treasurer Joseph Bertrand before going on his own in a 7th Ward aldermanic campaign, ginning up several candidates to run against him and split the anti-Beavers vote. Gamblers and politicians understand the power of precise arithmetic.
"Hey, I didn't set them up to run against me," Beavers told me during a break in the trial. "They were all legitimate candidates. Every one ran on his or her own."
Yeah, I said. Beavers smirked and laughed with a low "heh-heh-heh."
"I'm serious now," Beavers said. "Hey, you look good man, but you put on a few pounds, am I right?"
He's right. We chatted about the old days, and truth is I always liked the guy. I'm not saying he's innocent. But it wouldn't kill me if he beats this.
Beavers wasn't a phony like some of the others, like some of the pink guys making fortunes with their pens, praised and petted by official Chicago, as they took requests from Chinatown.
And he never played the anguished innocents, like that self-professed reform wonder couple — former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Stuffed Elk Head, and his wife, former Ald. Sandi Jackson, D-Other Stuffed Elk Head — now facing sentencing on federal charges of their own.
Beavers was always publicly upfront about his wants: The clout, the patronage and the play. In the early 1980s, the late Mayor Harold Washington — himself a child of the Democratic machine — was putting on a show for the editorial boards, demanding that black aldermen join his anti-patronage masquerade.
Beavers stood, stubbed out his Pall Mall and smiled at Harold.
"I love patronage," Beavers said, astonishing some self-proclaimed reformers who would later end up in prison on corruption charges. "My people love patronage, too!"
He could spend all night shooting dice at a West Side butcher shop, and walk out, gun strapped to his ankle, easing into his big long car with the Pointer Sisters on the tape deck just as cool as he was in federal court Thursday.
"I'm going to win this thing," he told me Thursday. "I'm going to win."
I could tell you more about our chat, but the only chat that counts now is one Beavers might have later, if he takes the witness stand and talks about the feds chatting him up about one of the Daley boys:
The Daley with the crazy eyebrows, the nice one, Johnny.
"They wanted me to wire up (on Cook County Commissioner John Daley), and I'm not wiring up," he told me in February 2012. "I'm not a stool pigeon. It's just not going to happen."
The Billy Dee cool and the three-card monte theater may play well on 26th Street. But this is a tax case in the federal building downtown. Tax cases are all about the numbers.
All 500,000 of them.
And those numbers have weight.
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