Federal agents raid ward office of South Side Ald. Carrie Austin: law enforcement source

Chicago Trubune
By Juan Perez Jr., John Byrne, Jason Meisner, and Gregory Pratt

What has become a familiar scene of federal agents rifling through a Chicago alderman’s office played out again Wednesday, this time on Chicago’s Far South Side as the FBI raided the 34th Ward office of influential Ald. Carrie Austin.

The second longest-serving active member of the Chicago City Council, Austin became yet another veteran alderman to come under the cloud of a federal investigation.

The FBI served a search warrant at Austin’s ward office on West 111th Street on Wednesday morning, according to a law enforcement source. In a statement, the FBI said it was conducting “court-authorized law enforcement activities” in the area of Austin’s office. But further reasons behind the search were not immediately available.

“Any time the FBI executes a search warrant of an elected official’s government office is a shocking development,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, said later at an unrelated news conference. “So I know what you know, which is not a lot at this point.”

The raid comes less than a month after 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke, the City Council’s longest-tenured member, was indicted on sweeping racketeering charges alleging he used his clout to steer business to his private law firm from developers seeking action at City Hall. There was no indication Wednesday’s search was connected to Burke.

Lightfoot and Austin appeared together earlier Wednesday morning at a news conference at Julian High School in Washington Heights to announce summer anti-violence initiatives for young people.

“Today is a day truly that God has made, because he made us the star of the show,” Austin said.

While the alderman kicked off the event with Lightfoot and other dignitaries standing behind her, a different scene was unfolding at her ward office.

Austin did not return calls and messages seeking comment. No one answered the door at a family home across the street from the ward office or at the alderman’s residence.

While news of the raid spread, a half-dozen unmarked vehicles with unlit emergency equipment were parked outside Austin’s office, and the building’s back door stood open as people in civilian clothes were observed working inside.

Men in slacks, shirts and sunglasses loaded what appeared to be computer equipment and other materials into a black SUV parked outside the ward office’s back door, before retreating inside and then emerging to shoo a group of reporters away from the departing vehicle.

The scene outside Austin’s office became a sort of spectacle for a few residents who celebrated Wednesday’s raid or simply stopped to gawk at the sight of a neighborhood titan getting stung by federal heat.

Two men cursed at Austin’s office as they drove past the building. One woman, who declined to be identified, said she welcomed the event. And Preston Brown Jr., a former aldermanic candidate whom Austin edged in the 2019 general election, described the scene as “justice” for Chicago residents.

“I mean, the feds don’t just come raid your office for no reason,” Brown said to reporters as he stood outside the 34th Ward office at the intersection of 111th Street and Normal Avenue in the South Side’s Roseland neighborhood.

Some constituents, meanwhile, encountered locked doors and confusion.

“I was just shocked,” Donna Thompson-Bey said. “I just came by to ask about when they were going to cut grass in the empty lot next to my parents’ home. And the door was locked.”

Two guards with uniforms from the AGB Investigative Services security firm, who said they were part of Austin’s neighborhood special service area program, pulled up to the office in a black SUV and knocked on the office door. They were soon dismissed by a man in shirtsleeves and tie.

“Everything’s good,” the man told the guards before closing the door.

A group of similarly clad workers streamed out the front door of Austin’s office minutes later, several of them carrying cardboard boxes, before loading into the unmarked vehicles and driving away.

“It’s Chicago,” Thompson-Bey said.

Donyetta Jenkins, who stood outside as agents raided Austin’s office, said she recently purchased a caged-up brick storefront on the corner next to the building. Wednesday afternoon, Jenkins said, seemed like an ideal time to introduce herself to Austin to get a sense of how the community could use the vacant commercial space.

But the front door to Austin’s office was locked, and the back door was open with two “official-looking people” standing guard.

“I asked them what they were doing there, and they gave me some baloney story about fixing a pipe or something like that,” Jenkins said. “Definitely not dressed like plumbers.”

Still, Jenkins said the scene was a sad sight as she tries to rehabilitate her building and determine how it can be converted into a business for the area.

“It’s pretty sad to me,” she said. “In my community, a lot of times we get railroaded. So hopefully this isn’t one of the cases of that, and hopefully she’s on the straight and narrow. I can only hope that for her, but you never know.”

Earlier this month, Burke pleaded not guilty to a 14-count federal indictment on charges of racketeering, bribery, attempted extortion and using interstate commerce to facilitate an unlawful activity.

Federal authorities accused Burke, the council’s longest-serving alderman, of using his clout as chairman of the City Council Finance Committee to try to force developers to hire his law firm for their property tax appeal work in exchange for his help with their projects. Among the projects Burke allegedly tried to capitalize on was the massive renovation of the old main post office property in the West Loop, according to the charges.

Thirty City Council members have pleaded guilty or been convicted of crimes related to their official duties since 1972. That number includes former 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran, whose lawyer argued in court earlier this month that Cochran shouldn’t serve prison time for his fraud conviction because putting corrupt Chicago aldermen behind bars hasn’t deterred other City Council members from trying to use their office to enrich themselves.

Nevertheless, in a City Council that’s no stranger to federal investigators, aldermen were stunned in January to hear that former Ald. Daniel Solis, 25th, allegedly wore a wire against Burke and possibly others.

After an initial report by the Sun-Times about Solis cooperating with federal investigators, Austin said she was shocked by Solis’ role.

The two had served together for more than two decades, and Austin said at that time she didn’t want to talk about Solis “because I might cry.” Asked why she might cry, Austin responded, “You don’t do that, you just don’t.”

On Wednesday, Austin’s City Council colleagues had mixed reactions to news of the raid.

Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd, who chairs the newly-created Ethics Committee, said the raid is “distressing” because agents are supposed to show probable cause before they go into a building.

Speaking about the cloud over City Hall from investigations and charges involving powerful aldermen, Smith said, “I think that this demonstrates why the public has been calling for reform.”

“That is a mandate from the public that I think City Council has heard loud and clear, and we’re going to be enacting reforms to respond to that,” Smith said.

West Side Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th, expressed shock that Austin had been targeted by federal agents. “Oh, my God,” Mitts said when told about the raid.

“We all knew they said they were still investigating, so I assumed there would be somebody. You just didn’t know who it would be,” said Mitts, who has served on the council with Austin since 2000.

“Her leadership and working with her, Carrie’s Carrie,” Mitts said of Austin, who’s a mentor to many aldermen, particularly members of the Black Caucus. “She’s able to move things and get things done. She’s taught a lot of us about how to achieve things as far as getting ordinances passed for our wards.

“It’s just sad,” Mitts added. “I don’t know what they have or what they’re looking for or why they’re looking. It’s just sad.”

Austin is well-regarded by many of her colleagues on the City Council who value her advice and counsel. Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, called Austin a friend and said he loves her to death.

Sawyer, who was the last City Council’s Black Caucus chairman, has served alongside Austin since 2011.

“She’s too young to be my mother, but (she’s) just a matriarch of the council,” Sawyer said. “Someone that we can talk to, has been around for a while, always had good relationships with the administration and was a value-added resource to us over the years.”

Sawyer said he doesn’t know what the FBI might’ve been looking for at her office and it could end up being nothing. But, Sawyer added, “When the feds come, they usually know what they’re looking for.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, Lightfoot’s choice to succeed Burke as the Finance Committee chairman, said the legal issues faced by his colleagues and Lightfoot’s election highlight the need for ethics reform soon.

“I can’t think of any time in the past 12 years that I’ve been in where we have this opportunity to move reforms forward,” Waguespack said. “If there’s going to be a sea change in the way City Council and city government works, we have to make those changes now that you’re at the beginning of a new term and you have a mayor who’s not sitting on her hands.”

One key element is expanding the inspector general’s power over City Council committees, but other reforms are needed, Waguespack said.

“There may be a lot of trepidation about (how to do) that, but anybody who disagrees we need reform with all the things going on lately doesn’t have their mindset on the right place,” Waguespack said.

Austin is the longest-serving African-American alderman currently on the council. She was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1994 to replace her husband, Lemuel, who died of a heart attack while in office.

The Austins rose to power in the political organization of Wilson Frost, a South Side politician who served for nearly 20 years on the City Council and became the body’s president pro tempore.

Austin is known for her at-times fiery demeanor. She has occasionally lashed out harshly at colleagues for what she perceives are disrespectful questions during committee hearings.

When the inspector general recommended firing her son from his city job in a controversy over a vehicle accident, Austin fumed, “I’m sick and tired of this (expletive) city witch-hunting my (expletive) family.”

Before becoming alderman, Austin was on the payroll of the City Council Traffic Committee headed by Ald. Anthony Laurino. And while Bonnie Laurino, the wife of Anthony Laurino, was on the Budget Committee headed by Lemuel Austin, Carrie Austin was on Laurino’s traffic committee.

Anthony Laurino’s daughter, Margaret, was appointed to replace him when he resigned in 1994.

Austin was a key black supporter on the City Council for the agendas of first Daley and later Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She chaired the powerful Budget Committee for years, shepherding those mayors’ annual spending plans through the City Council with a brusque style, often calling on opponents to come up with better ideas or keep their criticisms to themselves.

Austin’s relationship with Lightfoot has been decidedly frostier. Austin was on stage at a March rally for Lightfoot’s election opponent, Toni Preckwinkle, at the Harold Washington Cultural Center when U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush accused Lightfoot of being pro-police and said those who backed Lightfoot for mayor would “have the blood of the next young black man or black woman” killed by the police on their hands.[Most read] North Korea’s Kim Jong Un called Joe Biden a ‘rabid dog’ and President Trump came to his defense: He’s ‘actually somewhat better than that’ »

Lightfoot stripped Austin of her Budget Committee chairmanship, instead creating the new Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity, and naming Austin to helm that. Austin was initially noncommittal about the new post, saying she didn’t want to run a committee “that don’t have no teeth.”

“If it’s not going to have any effect, I don’t need that,” Austin said. “I don’t need a pansy (committee), nah.”

Lightfoot did not call for Austin’s resignation Wednesday and said it’s too soon to talk about taking away the committee chair she currently holds. But she emphasized the seriousness of the situation facing the veteran alderman.

Lightfoot said the circumstances of what led to the search warrant are unknown but said she has been expecting more allegations of wrongdoing in light of the federal government’s use of Solis as a mole. Lightfoot said she hadn’t spoken to Austin since their morning event and doesn’t believe the alderman knew what was happening at her ward office at the time.

Asked what she’d tell residents about her steps to fight corruption in the City Council, Lightfoot pointed to the ethics package introduced at the last City Council meeting.

“People expect that elected officials are actually going to operate with full integrity, transparency and be responsive to the needs of our citizens,” Lightfoot said. “Obviously there’s additional oversight that needs to happen, and we’re pushing forward on that.”