Last updated: 7 december, 2010 - 13:25 GMT

Uncovering corruption in Chicago

Presenter Steve Edwards recording Oiling the Machine in Chicago, US, for Assignment

Presenter Steve Edwards recording Oiling the Machine in Chicago, US, for Assignment

Assignment producer Michael Gallagher describes his visit with presenter Steve Edwards to the US's Windy City as part of the BBC's Extreme World season, to find out why it is routinely at the centre of political corruption storms.

Fixing interviews for a programme about Windy City politicians was never going to be the easiest task.

Our presenter Steve Edwards, from the BBC’s Chicago partner station WBEZ, was sharing the burden and advising on some of the more difficult bids.

“This one will be best coming from you rather than me. They’ll likely be more interested in talking to bigger media outfits.”

Others, we discovered, were more discriminating still.

“It won’t happen,” said Rahm Emanuel’s press officer, flatly. “For now Rahm’s only doing local TV – nobody else. End of story.”

Emanuel, the former White House Chief of Staff, and current mayoral candidate, was not going to waste a moment talking to listeners who couldn’t vote for him in the upcoming election.

Silver Shovel

Laski candidly related the tricks of his erstwhile trade – how to alter absentee ballots, how to vote multiple times and even how to appropriate the votes of the recently deceased.

Assignment producer Michael Gallagher

So far, so bad. And all this was before I’d had a chance to even mention the subject of our documentary – why have Chicago politicians proved to be so corrupt over the years?

I daren’t think how tough it might have been had we opened the phone calls with that line.

To be fair, some people were happy to talk. And, curiously, they often turned out to be the ones who, by their own admission, had taken part in the city’s political corruption – or ‘graft’ as it’s known.

Former alderman (city council member) Ambrosio Medrano took cash whilst in office from a man called John Christopher, an FBI mole who was part of Operation Silver Shovel, a major Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into political corruption in Chicago during the 1990s.

Activities from union corruption to drug trafficking and organised crime were uncovered and led to the convictions of 18 individuals. Christopher recorded more than 1,100 illegal transactions, including bribes, money laundering and drug deals. He made cash payments or other bribes to city officials in exchange for help in obtaining work and city contracts.

Farcical scene

Chicago city trucking programmes have been embroiled in corruption in the past

Chicago city trucking programmes have been embroiled in corruption in the past

Surely, this was a chapter of his life that Medrano would not want to revisit?

“Sure, no problem. Let’s meet at the cafe on the corner of 18th and Bishop in the 25th Ward,” he told me.

All he gave me as his contact was a telephone number. I was convinced that he wouldn't show.

I was wrong. We did the interview on a nearby street corner, our recording punctuated, appropriately enough, by police sirens.

“He says he’d like to put me on a retainer for $1,000 a week. He pulls out an envelope and says here, I’d like you to have this,” recalls Ambrosio, who insists that he strenuously refused the offer.

A farcical scene then ensued in which the envelope was pushed back and forth repeatedly across his desk.

“Finally, I take it,” he concedes.

He continued to meet the man a number of times before the FBI showed their hand and arrested him.

Rough and tumble

We met with another former official who has served time, Jim Laski. In 2006 the former city clerk was sentenced to 24 months in prison for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and obstructing justice, as part of the Hired Truck Program scandal.

Laski candidly related the tricks of his erstwhile trade – how to alter absentee ballots, how to vote multiple times and even how to appropriate the votes of the recently deceased.

This interview took a matter of minutes to fix over the phone.

It’s difficult to infer anything definite from these variable responses to our interview requests, but two thoughts come to mind.

Chicago city skyline

Chicago city skyline

Firstly, Chicago politicians, operating in one of America’s most rough and tumble political neighbourhoods, are ruthlessly pragmatic and know exactly what they want to achieve out of a media request. There has to be some political advantage in it for them.

Secondly, those who have crossed the line – though often contrite – may see less need to remain silent about their wrongdoing than counterparts elsewhere, thanks to Chicago’s public attitude to ‘graft’.

Fast Eddies

It is a city where corruption has been around for decades.

So much so that, as one interviewee told us: “We like our crooks, our fast Eddies, and we find them entertaining.”

So it’s “What’s in it for me?” on the one hand, “You’ve got to admire their audacity” on the other.

Making Oiling the Machine added up to a rather instructive introduction to Chicago’s political culture.

To listen to Extreme World: Oiling the Machine – Uncovering corruption in Chicago, click click here

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