Updated: 6:00 p.m.
Federal agents raided the ward office of veteran South Side Chicago Ald. Carrie Austin on Wednesday.
The FBI says its agents were executing a warrant when they entered Austin’s 34th Ward office in Chicago’s West Roseland neighborhood. A source tells WBEZ it’s not related to the ongoing case against 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke.
At around 2 p.m., federal agents walked out of Austin’s ward office on 111th Street with cardboard boxes and paper bags. They loaded up two cars parked outside and drove off without speaking to reporters.
Until recently, Austin was one of the most powerful members of the City Council, chairing the influential Budget Committee under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She also was a close ally of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
And Austin recently offered to serve new Mayor Lori Lightfoot just as loyally, even though she had backed rival Toni Preckwinkle in this year’s election. But Lightfoot rebuffed Austin and stripped her of the top Budget Committee post.
When Lightfoot stripped Austin of that chairmanship, she offered a consolation appointment, creating a new Committee on Contract Oversight and Equity. On Wednesday evening, Lightfoot wouldn't say if she would be stripping Austin of that leadership post, saying it was too early.
Lightfoot said it was also “too early” to know what prompted the raid. “I know what you know,” Lightfoot told reporters at an unrelated press event at City Hall.
When asked if she was surprised that yet another alderman’s ward office was raided by federal agents, the Mayor said, “I don’t know what the circumstances are, but we know that the federal investigation is years in the making.”
Earlier this morning Lightfoot and Austin attended a morning press event at Percy L. Julian High School. It was a rare public appearance for the South Side alderman, especially as she endorsed Lightfoot’s main opponent in the recent mayoral election.
“I have no reason to believe she was aware of the search warrant that was executed,” Lightfoot said
The raid closely follows the biggest corruption case at City Hall in many years — authorities recently accused Burke of bribery, racketeering and attempted extortion. Prosecutors allege that the veteran alderman abused his City Hall power to win business for his private law firm.
Austin was among the aldermen who was most critical of then-colleague Danny Solis when it was revealed earlier this year that Solis had cooperated with federal investigators and secretly recorded conversations with Burke.
“You just don’t do that,” Austin said of Solis at the time, shaking her head and apparently fighting back tears.
Austin turned 70 years old on May 15 and is the second longest-serving member of the Council after Burke.
She has been an alderman since 1994, when Daley appointed her to succeed her husband, Lemuel Austin, after he died. She won reelection in February to another four-year term with 54 percent of the vote.
That was despite a WBEZ/The Daily Line investigation that found Austin had the worst attendance rate of any alderman during the last four-year term.
“I don't really have to show up,” said Austin, who added that she often listens in to what’s happening in the council chambers over the speaker system in her office. “And if my vote is that important, I do show up.”
Austin’s committee declined to provide attendance records until after WBEZ filed a lawsuit for the public records. And even then, the Budget Committee said it could only provide records for 19 of 78 meetings it held at City Hall during the last term.
Austin also is among the Council’s most unabashed practitioners of old-school politics, furiously defending the nepotism hire of one of her seven children a couple years ago. Austin hired her son Kenny as the 34th Ward’s Streets and Sanitation superintendent in 2017.
“It may be [nepotism] but I’m still gonna hire the best person I have for the job,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times at that time. “If I can’t have somebody there that I trust, who am I gonna put there? … Why is it so wrong for you to have your family member, your cousin or whatever working.”
Two years earlier, Austin had blasted the city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson, for an investigation that caused Kenny Austin to lose his job as a city laborer. The investigation found Kenny Austin crashed a city vehicle while driving on a suspended license and tried to get a co-worker to cover for him to avoid a mandatory drug test.