Veteran Chicago Ald. Carrie Austin and her chief of staff were indicted Thursday in federal court for bribery.
U.S. Attorney John Lausch’s office alleges that Austin, 72, and her top aide, Chester Wilson Jr., 55, took bribes from a developer in exchange for access to millions of taxpayer dollars for a project in Austin’s 34th Ward.
Prosecutors say that the construction company owner and other contractors, none of which are identified by name in the indictment, provided Austin with home improvements, furniture and appliances, in return for access to $10 million in tax-increment and other publicly-financed dollars, the indictment alleges.
Wilson received home improvement materials and services for rental properties he owned, federal authorities allege.
The indictment alleges the schemes stem from a nearly $50 million residential development in Austin’s ward, beginning in 2014. The project required the construction of streets, infrastructure and other public way development that would in turn make it eligible to receive millions in taxpayer funded dollars.
Authorities say that in 2017, a contractor on the development offered and Austin accepted more than $5,000 worth of new kitchen cabinets in her home, for which the contractor falsely claimed in documents were for the development.
The feds say Austin asked a developer specifically for “bathroom tiles in white or vein white” and received “brand new” and expensive” sump pumps.
According to court documents, Austin also allegedly lied to investigators when they asked whether she accepted a free sump pump from a developer. She responded to investigators she’d never received anything from the developer, “other than a cake,” the indictment alleged.
Wilson allegedly solicited developers for new air conditioning and heating units for rental properties he owned, according to the indictment. Developers allegedly helped to pay for a new HVAC system for one of Wilson’s investment properties in 2017, allegedly saying, “You help me a lot, and I’ll help you,” the indictment alleged.
WBEZ has previously reported that the feds were investigating construction projects in Austin’s ward as part of its years-long probe.
In 2019, federal agents raided the South Side office of the alderman, who has been on the City Council for more than two decades, and whose ward includes parts of the West Pullman, Washington Heights, Morgan Park and Roseland neighborhoods.
Austin and Wilson, who has worked in her office for decades, could not be immediately reached. When her office was raided two years ago, Austin said she was innocent.
Austin was a staunch supporter of past mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley, and once held prominent positions on the city council. But under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Austin’s post as head of the budget committee was stripped, even before the federal investigation into her came into public view.
In her more than quarter-century on the City Council, Austin has been one of the staunchest defenders of old-style Chicago politics, including hiring family members.
A WBEZ investigation found seven members of Austin’s immediate family were government employees at the time. Six of them worked for the City of Chicago.
Austin personally hired four of them — two sons, a granddaughter and a daughter-in-law, according to city personnel records and court documents.
Altogether, Austin and her family members were getting paid a total of nearly $600,000 in government salaries each year, the investigation found.
In addition to the feds, the investigation that led to Austin’s indictment also involved the office of City of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson — whom the alderman has criticized in the past for allegedly picking on her and her son.
Austin once unleashed a profane attack on Ferguson for forcing her son’s resignation from a city job after what she described as a “witch hunt.”
But Austin went on to re-hire her son as her ward’s Streets and Sanitation superintendent. She defended that move, telling the Chicago Sun-Times, “Why is it so wrong for you to have your family member, your cousin or whatever working. Are you saying they don’t deserve to work either?”
Wilson has worked for Austin since 1995, according to his online networking profile.
Wilson leveraged his political ties to win executive clemency in 2014, from then-Gov. Pat Quinn, for a 1993 conviction in Cook County. His successful petition for clemency included photos of Wilson with Austin, Daley, former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, according to records obtained by WBEZ.
Dan Mihalopoulos is a WBEZ investigative reporter.