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Bribes finding palms despite crackdowns Exchanging influence for money isn't new; only the people are


CHICAGO -- Ambrosio Medrano went to prison Monday. The Chicago alderman, who resigned and pleaded guilty to taking $31,000 in bribes, should have known better. It's not as if federal prosecutors haven't run sting operations here year after year, decade after decade.

In a city where federal investigations have routinely nabbed judges and aldermen and even powerful members of Congress, Medrano was caught in Operation Silver Shovel, the latest in a series of corruption probes.

But Chicago isn't special. The story is old. It's the players who are new.

In Miami last month, federal officials charged the city manager with conspiring to skim funds from a city health insurance contract. In Baton Rouge, La., a federal grand jury has charged a former state senator in a gambling-bribery scheme. The governor of Arizona faces trial next spring on 23 counts of fraud, attempted extortion and lying under oath.

After all the highly publicized investigations, all the humiliating front-page photos, all the sullied reputations, some officials believe they will be the ones to break the rules and not be caught.

Why do they do it?

"Nobody learns a thing," one defense lawyer said in a local newspaper after Operation Silver Shovel was unveiled.

In Chicago, prosecutors promise that more officials, union leaders and organized crime figures will be charged before Operation Silver Shovel runs its course. They expect that will take years.

Some students of political ethics cases believe corruption is rarer today than it was several decades ago, before laws strictly defining conflicts of interest were enacted and before the media was so aggressive. But it still exists everywhere.

"For some people, greed is a more powerful motivator than fear," says Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia instructor whose latest book is "Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption American Politics."

Or, as Chicago's U.S. attorney, James B. Burns, said, "The two things that make the world go 'round are power and money. And sometimes there's a big overlap.

"Why do they do it? If you were to generalize," Burns said, "arrogance of power. Maybe they feel they're in a position that they're not going to get caught. The driving force behind it? I guess it has to be greed."

Temptation is all around. How can a politician resist? Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley had some advice:

"Just don't take the money."

A mole who talked

Operation Silver Shovel began with a mole -- John Christopher, an excavation contractor who's served time in prison. In 1992, when agents began investigating him for other alleged crimes, Christopher decided to cooperate.

According to court documents, Christopher was soon making his business rounds in the company of an undercover FBI agent, introducing his new pal to public officials and private business people as he tried to win contracts and concessions for his companies.

They talked, the government says, about using a black-owned company as a minority front for a white business. They talked, according to court papers, about greasing palms in exchange for no-bid leases. They talked about paying for preferential treatment from a union.

By the time Silver Shovel became public this year, Christopher and the agent had made more than 1,100 audio or video recordings of meetings or telephone conversations.

And from July 1992 to December, Christopher and the undercover agent paid more than $150,000 in bribes.

'Great appetites'

"People who enter politics are people of great appetites," Sabato said. "They have great virtues and vices to match. They consider themselves special. Many of them believe there's two sets of rules: one for everyone else, and one for special people like them, who are beloved."

Vincent Connelly, a defense lawyer and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, agrees.

"We're talking about this time-consuming, low-paying job where you have vast discretionary authority over a vast array of things that can affect local government. They think this money is due them. And there is a vast field of temptation out there."

Burns, the U.S. attorney, calls them "the big-score guys.

"They won't be patient," he said. "The rules of the game they find confining. They want the big score, and they're willing to take the risk."

In a statement this year, as subpoenas were delivered to government offices, Burns listed the alleged crimes that had been uncovered. And then he added, "Unfortunately, it demonstrates that Chicago's time-honored tradition of political corruption, including payoffs and extortion, has not vanished despite previous successful undercover corruption probes."

'That's why I'm here'

Chicago Alderman Allan Streeter knew the rules and he was happy to explain them, like a patient teacher to a promising student: "You guys take care of me," Streeter said, "so I have to take care of you."

Unfortunately for Streeter, he was talking to an undercover FBI agent about how to pay off public officials. And his conversation -- sometimes earnest, sometimes swaggering -- was rolling onto tape.

When federal prosecutors finished listening, Streeter pleaded guilty to accepting more than $36,000 in bribes and a cellular telephone. That included payments to cover the alderman's phone bill and the lease on his Lincoln Town Car.

"Aldermen are very powerful political players in this city," said Burns, the U.S. attorney. "Aldermen have traditionally been very involved in calling the shots in their wards."

So Christopher and the agent went to Streeter for favors. And while he was selling his services, the alderman became very chatty.

Streeter's plea agreement reads like a how-to book on public corruption, with Streeter sounding oh-so-anxious to please. "Whatever there is to do, I'll do it," he told the mole and the federal agent. "That's why I'm here."

According to the transcripts, the agent said one day, "Rules are meant to be broken."

"As are laws," Streeter replied.

Streeter provided entree for Christopher and the agent, vouching for them in their contacts with other officials in the city and suburbs. And he tutored them on how to make their approaches.

When an official says, "It's really not necessary," Streeter said, "that means they want it. It's a separate language. That's in case someone is listening in on the conversation. They have a disclaimer."

The FBI was listening to all this. Exit Streeter, who awaits sentencing on the extortion and tax convictions.

'I took the bait'

When federal agents surprised alderman Medrano with their tapes of his conversations with John Christopher, Medrano confessed. He took his punishment like a man, said his attorney, Jeffrey Steinback. For that, at least, Steinback says Medrano should be commended.

"When he was confronted with allegations of his wrongdoing, he didn't try to run," Steinback said. "He confessed. He acknowledged his guilt from the get-go."

Medrano has said he was asked to wear a tape recorder to further the investigation. He said no. He was sentenced to 30 months.

Described as a smart, affable man, Medrano was admired by constituents.

But sometimes, Steinback said, people find themselves in "an environment that somehow engenders this behavior, and you gradually lose sight of your shining principles. And you can wind up doing something that's almost horrifying when you look back on it: Did I say that? Did I do that? Did I take that? I can't believe it."

"I took the bait," Medrano told a reporter last summer. "It was wrong. Some people take it on the first time, some people take it on the third time, some people take it on the 10th time, some people don't take it at all. But I did."

Streeter's story is different. When he was confronted by federal agents, he agreed to cooperate. Soon he was wearing a recorder as he talked with other officials.

For that, he has been called a rat, a snitch, a pimp by his former council colleagues and by some community leaders.

His attorney, Michael Siegel, said Streeter should instead be praised for his cooperation -- even if some people believe he broke a code of conduct by helping the feds.

"He realized he did something wrong and he tried to make it as right as he could," Siegel said.

"He's basically a stand-up guy who said, 'I did something wrong and I want to try to make it right.' For that, he's been totally ostracized by the other aldermen."

Streeter won't be sentenced, Siegel said, until he's done testifying in other Silver Shovel cases.

Sabato, the University of Virginia instructor, believes that the public's tolerance for political corruption is lower than it was decades ago:

"In the early part of the century, corruption was almost expected. If you can't get your relatives jobs, what good are you?"

Today, "the scrutiny is greater. The culture has changed. Post-Watergate and a thousand other scandals, we're fortunately a little more Puritan."

And yet, the game continues.

Leon Despres, 88, was an alderman for 20 years, retiring from the council in 1975.

He's seen this before, over and over. "Each generation seems to spawn people who believe they can get away with it," Despres said from his law office.

"There certainly are a lot of greedy people."

Pub Date: 10/05/96

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