During embattled South Side Ald. Carrie Austin’s quarter-century as one of the most loyal allies to the last two Chicago mayors, many of her relatives enjoyed the perks of her City Hall clout.
Austin has been among the City Council’s most vocal defenders of old-school politics, including employing family. And she has put large amounts of taxpayer dollars where her mouth is, practicing nepotism to an extent rivalled in recent years only by former Cook County Democratic boss Joe Berrios.
A WBEZ investigation has found seven members of Austin’s immediate family were government employees until a few weeks ago. 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.
But the alderman’s clout has waned dramatically in the past few months. One of her sons and her daughter-in-law lost their city jobs last month, because new Mayor Lori Lightfoot ended Austin’s 12-year run as head of the Council’s Budget Committee.
And on June 19, the FBI raided Austin’s 34th Ward office on 111th Street. Records obtained by WBEZ show that the long list of documents sought by a federal grand jury included “all items related to” Austin and her “family members.”
The grand jury subpoena did not specifically name any of Austin’s family members. The feds have declined to comment on the corruption probe.
“My kids get jobs on their own,” Austin told WBEZ this week, crying. “I didn’t have to help them. But nobody believes me because I’m a politician, because I’m an alderman.”
Austin said her family members were qualified for every job they’ve received and worked hard for their taxpayer-funded wages: “Them that work, eat. Them that don’t work, don’t eat.”
But two of her sons faced discipline after investigations by City Hall’s independent inspector general during the past few years, according to records obtained by WBEZ.
For generations, clout-heavy politicians in Chicago habitually packed the public payrolls with their relatives. But the practice has come into disrepute as corruption probes ensnared many aldermen and leaders promised to clean up local government.
Austin has no such qualms. When the hiring of one son was exposed a couple years ago, she vehemently defended the move, telling reporters, “Why is it so wrong for you to have your family member, your cousin or whatever working? It’s so unfair for you to lambast us all the time when we have our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers whomever on the payroll. It’s not [for] the benefit of the person. It’s the trust that we have for that individual.”
One of the most powerful aldermen
Austin, 70, joined the City Council in 1994. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed her to replace her husband, Lemuel Austin Jr., as alderman when he died suddenly at age 48.
As one of the African-American aldermen with the most influence during the last two mayoral administrations, Austin eventually rose to chair the Council’s powerful Budget Committee under Daley and Rahm Emanuel.
She lost the position after supporting Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s failed bid in this year’s mayoral election to replace the retiring Emanuel. Lightfoot spurned Austin’s offers to be as loyal to her as she had been to Daley and Emanuel.
But at the height of her influence, Austin was able to increase the number of her close relatives on the city payroll, personnel records show.
Her son Lemuel Austin IV, 39, is in the highest-ranking and best-paid city position among all her relatives. He works in the Department of Streets and Sanitation as an assistant commissioner in charge of community outreach. His annual salary: almost $107,000.
Austin’s son kept his position despite getting suspended last year. Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office revealed that Lemuel Austin IV had “used an assigned city vehicle for personal use,” in violation of city policy.
“The employee’s personal use of the vehicle included regularly transporting the employee’s children to school and spouse to work on multiple occasions, while on duty for the city,” according to documents from the inspector general’s office.
Lemuel Austin IV admitted the offense but “then continued on with the unauthorized practice.”
The commissioner handed him a two-week suspension, which he served in May and June of last year, for “conduct unbecoming an officer or employee” and “inefficiency in the performance of duties,” documents in his personnel file show.
A spokeswoman for the city’s inspector general declined to comment on the probe of Lemuel Austin IV, who did not return calls.
Began career ‘in the hole’
Lemuel Austin IV began working for the City of Chicago in 2001, when he was 21 years old, as a sewer laborer. Before that, he cleaned CTA rail cars and worked as a laborer for a politically connected construction company.
“Lemuel started in the hole,” his mother said, referring to the trenches city workers dig to access sewer lines. “He started at the bottom and worked his way up.”
Lemuel Austin IV rose to his current position in 2015. Ald. Austin said the promotion to assistant commissioner “had nothing to do with” her.
But before that, Lemuel Austin IV worked for more than 2-1/2 years for his mother — as the Streets and Sanitation superintendent for the 34th Ward, from March 2011 until October 2013.
And internal city emails obtained by WBEZ show Carrie Austin once made sure her son’s compensation was boosted significantly.
In an email in January 2012, a deputy Streets and Sanitation commissioner wrote to another official to ensure that an “unscheduled salary change” for Lemuel Austin IV went into effect immediately and that he got back pay.
Without noting that he was the alderman’s son, the deputy commissioner wrote that the raise was approved as part of the budget process — which Carrie Austin oversaw.
“The 34th Ward alderman and Budget Committee chairman called [the city’s budget office] personally to ask about this, so this needs to be completed as soon as possible,” the deputy commissioner wrote.
City documents show the move translated into a $3,600 raise for Lemuel Austin IV. That worked out to an increase of 4.7 percent, which took his salary to more than $80,000.
Ald. Austin said this week she called the mayor’s budget director about the matter but says her son was entitled to the pay increase.
‘I recommended me’
Another of the alderman’s sons, Kenneth Austin, is her Streets and Sanitation ward superintendent now. Carrie Austin gave Kenneth Austin that job shortly after he got forced from the city payroll by the inspector general’s office.
In that case, Ferguson alleged that Kenneth Austin crashed a city vehicle while driving on a suspended license in 2012, then had a co-worker cover for him to avoid taking a required drug test. Ferguson suggested that Kenneth Austin could be fired for that incident, but instead he quit his job as a Streets and Sanitation laborer in 2015.
About a year later, however, Kenneth Austin got another city job — as an aide in his mother’s ward office, according to payroll records.
Then, in October 2017, Ald. Austin made Kenneth Austin her Streets and Sanitation ward superintendent, with a starting annual salary of more than $72,000. His current salary is more than $79,000.
Although they’re listed as Streets and Sanitation employees, aldermen traditionally get to pick their ward superintendents. Kenneth Austin’s hire as his mother’s ward superintendent was no exception, according to court records in a federal civil lawsuit stemming from the inspector general’s case against Kenneth Austin.
Kenneth Austin sat for a deposition in the case in March and was asked if his mother had recommended him to be her ward superintendent.
“Yes. I recommended me. She was O.K. with it,” Kenneth Austin replied, according to the transcript of his deposition.
But for Kenneth Austin to keep the job, Carrie Austin had to pay child support that he owed. Because he had not made those child support payments, the state suspended Kenneth Austin’s driver’s license. And having a valid license is a requirement for being a ward superintendent.
At the time of Ferguson’s investigation, Ald. Austin said Kenneth Austin had been unfairly accused by the inspector general because he was her son.
“I’m sick and tired of this [expletive] city witch-hunting my [expletive] family,” Austin said.
Carrie Austin said she picked Kenneth Austin as her ward superintendent because he had 27 years of experience as a city worker and knew the ward well.
The other city worker who was in the car with Kenneth Austin during the time of the crash filed the pending federal lawsuit against the city and Carrie Austin, alleging he was punished for being a whistleblower.
‘I didn’t help them’
The plaintiff’s lawyer also deposed Carrie Austin, on April 4. She acknowledged that the media had reported on nepotism by her but said she did not recall the details.
“You just know that there was some general claim that you were involved in nepotism or favoritism?” the plaintiff’s lawyer asked Carrie Austin.
“Correct,” she replied.
“And what did you do to address that?” the lawyer asked.
“Nothing,” the alderman said.
She then testified that her children got their city jobs “on their own.”
But the WBEZ investigation found that, in addition to picking Kenneth Austin and Lemuel Austin IV as her ward superintendents, the alderman made three other nepotism hires in her own office. They included:
Daughter-in-law Erin Kelley, who became an aldermanic aide in June 2003 – less than two months before she got married to Lemuel Austin IV. Kelley won promotion to “legislative aide” for the Budget Committee when Carrie Austin became the committee’s chairwoman in 2007. The job transfer resulted in an immediate 31 percent raise for Kelley. But Kelley lost that position on June 28, soon after Lightfoot stripped her mother-in-law of the top Budget Committee post.
Son Lemuel D. Austin III had three stints working for his mother, including getting re-hired as an “aldermanic aide” last September. But he too left the city payroll a month ago.
Granddaughter Arnea Austin, whose mother is the alderman’s daughter Lemuettia Austin-Hicks. Arnea Austin was hired as an assistant to the alderman in the Budget Committee when she was 20 years old, in March 2018.
Arnea Austin previously worked as a sales associate at a Victoria’s Secret shop and in the cosmetology business, according to her online job-networking profile.
Her starting salary of about $25,000 rose to more than $35,000 within a few months of starting to work for her grandmother, records show.
“She’s my tech person,” Carrie Austin said. “I’m not computer-savvy.”
The alderman said she has 29 grandchildren and most live in the city, but she has not tried to help the others get government jobs — and only hired Arnea after “a mishap with her scholarship” forced her to drop out of college.
“I’m tired of people saying all my family is on the payroll,” the alderman said.
Son-in-law Frederick Geiger is a $98,628-a-year projects administrator in the city’s Department of Buildings. Geiger began working for the city in 1994, less than a year before he got married to the alderman’s daughter Fatrice.
Fatrice Austin is paid nearly $73,000 a year as a secretary for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, where she has worked since 1999. Like Carrie Austin, Secretary of State Jesse White is a longtime leader in the Cook County Democratic Party.
Daughter Lemuettia Austin-Hicks worked for more than a decade at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, as an aide to a commissioner.
Lemuettia’s husband, Cardell Hicks, had landed a job with the city in 2001, the year after they got married. But he quit in 2014, after his third leave of absence.
11 voters at one house
Eleven people are active voters who are registered at the same 1,257-square-foot bungalow on 111th Street that the alderman long has owned. Among them are the alderman and four family members with government jobs: Kenneth, Lemuel IV, Fatrice and Arnea. Carrie Austin said all of the registered voters there are relatives and live in the house.
According to grand-jury records, federal investigators are interested in Carrie Austin’s purchase last year of another, newly built home in the ward, on South Laflin Street.
Authorities also have sought documents on a sweeping array of other topics, including campaign contributions, real estate developer subsidies, construction companies, the use of food stamps and Austin’s chief of staff, Chester Wilson Jr.
Austin declined to comment on the federal raid.
She has not been charged and says she plans to remain as alderman, which pays more than $120,000 a year. She also continues to be the vice chairwoman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
In recent years, only the county Democrats’ former chairman, Berrios, appeared to practice nepotism as unapologetically as Austin.
A 2012 investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times tallied 13 members of the Berrios family who held county or state jobs. Like Austin, Berrios proudly defended hiring relatives, arguing that Democratic President John F. Kennedy had hired his brother Robert as his attorney general.
But not even Berrios could match Austin’s four nepotism hires at the same time. There were three family members — his son, a daughter and a sister — working directly for Berrios in the county assessor’s office, which he lost in last year’s Democratic primary election.