Former Chicago Ald. Ed Vrdolyak, a longtime Chicago powerbroker who earned the nickname “Fast Eddie” because of his affinity for backroom deals, is once again headed to federal prison, this time for his part in an alleged scheme to get millions in bogus legal fees from a huge settlement between the state of Illinois and Big Tobacco.
Judge Robert Dow sentenced Vrdolyak to 18 months in prison for tax evasion during a virtual hearing Friday, striking a balance between federal prosecutors who asked for more than two years in prison, and Vrdolyak’s attorneys who sought home confinement or probation for Vrdolyak, calling time in prison during the COVID-19 crisis a “death sentence” for the 82-year-old defendant.
“Those who are concerned about facing punishment at age 80 or older ought not to be committing crimes at age 70 or 75,” Dow said. “This is not the crime of the century, but it is an outrageous violation of our tax laws.”
Dow did rule that Vrdolyak would not have to report to prison until it was safe for him to do so.
“The pandemic will either be over or everybody who wants to be vaccinated will be vaccinated, before anybody who is vulnerable should be placed in the prison environment,” Dow said.
The judge set a hearing date for March to further evaluate when it would be safe for Vrdolyak to begin his sentence.
Dow said Vrdolyak’s lifetime of deception and criminality factored into his decision to send the geriatric attorney to prison. During Friday’s hearing, Dow referenced Vrdolyak’s 2008 conviction and prison sentence for bribery, as well as the fact that Vrdolyak lied to a federal judge in a different case and was caught on tape describing himself as a “f***ing schemer.”
“Effing schemer is not how you would hope a lawyer would describe himself, but that is exactly what the defendant here said,” Dow said. “And unfortunately the description is apt.”
Vrdolyak, who ruled the Chicago city council in the ’70s and ’80s, is now headed back to prison for the second time since he turned 70.
The road that led to Friday’s sentencing stretches back to 1996 when Illinois joined a crush of states suing tobacco companies over the marketing of cigarettes and deception about their health risks.
The tobacco industry settled the lawsuit for $9.1 billion, and private attorneys representing the state collected nearly $200 million in legal fees. Vrdolyak and his partner Daniel Soso, an attorney and former Chicago police officer, got about $12 million from those legal fees, even though prosecutors claim they “did no work” on the case.
Vrdolyak’s attorneys say the government never proved there was anything criminal about the multi-million-dollar payout, and that Vrdolyak earned the fee by shepherding the lucrative tobacco work to a Chicago law firm. And in fact Vrdolyak was never charged with any crime for taking the millions. Instead Vrdolyak was charged in 2016 with tax evasion for helping Soso hide his earnings from the IRS.
Soso and Vrdolyak both pleaded guilty to tax evasion in early 2019. Soso was sentenced to two years in prison in March.
Dow said he considered the provenance of the money when deciding the sentence, but didn’t give it much weight. He said it would not be possible to go back and figure out how the legal-fees scheme worked or whether Vrdolyak got the money legitimately.
“If I were inclined to try to get to the bottom of it, the passage of time, the death and or mental decline of many of the key participants … would put the task beyond comprehension,” Dow said. “Perhaps it doesn’t speak well of Mr. Vrdolyak that he was paid millions of dollars for doing not all that much work in the tobacco case … But in the grand scheme of [things] it doesn’t add much to the record.”
Vrdolyak was joined during the sentencing hearing by his sons John and Pete Vrdolyak and in possession of a cashier’s check for $334,881.40 - the total of the restitution he owes because of the conviction.
In brief remarks to the judge, Vrdolyak apologized to the government and his family, and said his actions were “selfish” and hurt others.
“What happened was my own fault and I take full responsibility,” Vrdolyak said.
Vrdolyak’s attorney, Catharine O’Daniel, said any time in prison would worsen Vrdolyak’s “growing brain tumor,” and that Vrdolyak’s medical issues could make him unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
In her arguments, O’Daniel described Vrdolyak as “contrite,” “humble” and “remorseful” and said he has been a changed man over the last decade, avoiding trouble and helping people.
“His legacy will be the people he helped,” O’Daniel said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Singh Bhachu said Vrdolyak had shown a “contempt” for tax law throughout his career that was “staggering.”
“His deception in this case was consistent with the deception that he has manifested in many other instances,” Bhachu told the judge. “What we have here is a really big need in this case to promote a respect for the law.”
The pre-sentencing report prepared by the U.S Probation Office, initially included a reference to Vrdolyak’s alias “Fast Eddie,” but the defense objected, saying that Vrdolyak has never referred to himself as Fast Eddie and there was no basis for including the media-concocted moniker. After the sentencing hearing, O’Daniel told WBEZ the judge was right to strike the reference to Fast Eddie from the pre-sentencing report.
“That’s not a term he’s ever used to describe himself and it doesn’t describe who he is now,” O’Daniel said of her client. “In the last 10 years, this is a man who’s had a lot of personal growth and a lot of personal reflection, and he has done for others things that would just blow your mind.”
O’Daniel said they were disappointed in the judge’s decision to sentence Vrdolyak to prison time, but also “very grateful” that Dow delayed the reporting date because of COVID-19. Still, she said the Vrdolyak family is worried because of his advanced age and “myriad” of health problems.
“Eddie being Eddie takes things in stride, and he has the support of a family that absolutely loves and adores him, but they’re concerned, they’re concerned about how this will impact his health,” O’Daniel said.
When asked if she believes Vrdolyak’s reputation as a “schemer” and deal-maker affected the sentencing decision, O’Daniel said “I’d like to believe it didn’t.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of legal fees paid out as part of the settlement agreement between the state of Illinois and tobacco companies. Private attorneys representing the state collected nearly $200 million in legal fees.