Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ten months, versus probation, for Fast Eddie. It’s a political/legal “do-over”

Reading about the court hearing held Friday that resulted in one-time Cook County Democratic Chairman-turned-Republican Edward R. Vrdolyak receiving a 10-month term in a federal correctional center made me feel like I was 10 years old again, and not just because “Fast Eddie” was a Chicago politico back when I was a kid.

Learning about what happened to Vrdolyak, I felt like a kid playing ball when someone managed to hit some dinky little squib that neither side could agree on whether it was a base hit or an out. So we’d do a “do-over.” Forget what happened. Just re-start the game afresh.

FOR WHAT HAPPENED to Vrdolyak was the legal equivalent of a do-over. The people who had a problem with the fact that Vrdolyak last year received probation, a fine and NO prison time as his punishment for pleading guilty to charges pending against him in U.S. District Court managed to find a sympathetic appeals court to order the re-sentencing that finally occurred on Friday.

A new federal judge in Chicago reviewed the facts and calculated that some prison time was required – although not nearly as much as the federal prosecutors wanted Vrdolyak to receive.

Ten months is not the 3.5-year prison term that prosecutors wanted – both back when Judge Milton Shadur gave him probation last February, and when Judge Matthew Kennelly imposed his sentence this week.

The difference between the two men was that when Shadur used the legal formulas to calculate how much money people were cheated out of by Vrdolyak’s illegal acts, he came up with a figure of “$0.” Kennelly agreed with the appeals court that a true figure is “$1.5 million.”

FOR THOSE WHO want to think that Vrdolyak still got off too light, one ought to keep in mind that the fine of $50,000 he originally would have had to pay has now been more than quintupled to $260,000.

Although it turns out that many of the other aspects of probation mean that he will get credit for the many hours of community service that he has already performed during the past year-and-a-half.

In short, those people who were gleefully hoping for an image of Vrdolyak dying in some sordid prison setting are not going to get their way.

Which is another reason why the Vrdolyak situation makes me feel like a 10-year-old. Actually, it makes me feel like I’m surrounded by a batch of 10-year-olds. All of us thinking with our emotions, rather than any sense of logic or rationality related to this specific case.

BECAUSE I DOUBT that many people could actually tell you the specifics of the “crime” for which Vrdolyak ultimately pleaded guilty two years ago, was finally sentenced on Friday, and likely will use the bulk of the year 2011 to actually serve his prison term.

The actual charges were conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud. Prosecutors say that when Vrdolyak arranged for a $1.5 million payment for attorney Stuart Levine for a $15 million sale of property on the Near North Side owned by the University of Chicago Medical School, it was an act that should be regarded as criminal.

But what creates the visceral reaction to the name “Vrdolyak” that people feel every time this case comes up is due to the activities of decades ago – back when Harold Washington became mayor and “Fast Eddie” realized that the racial animosity many Chicagoans felt to the then-new concept of an African-American politician holding a position of true leadership meant that he could get away with openly defying the mayor.

For a couple of years, Vrdolyak was the leader of the “29,” the opposition aldermen who used their majority to stall government, thwart mayoral initiatives and deprive the executive branch of the city of any legitimate accomplishments.

I STILL SAY that if Republicans in Congress gain majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, the next two years of federal government will be a national version of the “Council Wars” of old that caused the Wall Street Journal to dub Chicago as, “Beirut by the Lake.”

The people who are all insistent that Vrdolyak must go to prison are so hard-core because they want to think of him receiving that punishment because of the way he defied Washington (would it be rude for me to remind people at this point that Washington himself once served a 40-day jail sentence for income tax-related charges?).

I literally stumbled across one anonymous Internet commenter who quipped that the spirit of Washington was “giggling” at the thought of Vrdolyak doing time in prison.

A part of me just finds that logic twisted, even though I realize that Vrdolyak’s backers are the ones who unashamedly spout their racial rhetoric, and defend Edward R. for standing up for their views.

PERSONALLY, I AM glad that Vrdolyak didn’t get anywhere near the 3.5 years that federal prosecutors were seeking. That strikes me as being excessive. I’m in full agreement with Kennelly, who said Friday that the prosecutorial request was, “unjust.”

But I still have to agree with my original thoughts back when he originally got probation. No amount of punishment was going to appease Vrdolyak’s critics, in part because of his age – he’s 72. Vrdolyak is retired from the law firm he founded and his sons now run (so disbarment doesn’t really affect his daily life) and he isn’t about to run for electoral office anytime soon (he hasn’t been a candidate for more than two decades).

The only thing that really gets hit is how comfortable a retirement Eddie gets to experience. Which is why Vrdolyak summed it up best when he described his situation as, “dumb, it was stupid and I was wrong.”

I couldn’t have written it any better.


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