Ald. Carrie Austin indicted on bribery charges – Crain’s Chicago Business

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A federal grand jury has indicted 34th Ward Ald. Carrie Austin, 72, and her chief of staff, Chester Wilson, on bribery charges. The U.S. attorney’s office says Austin conspired “to receive home improvements from construction contractors seeking city assistance” for a development project in her ward on the city’s far South Side. Read the indictment below.

Austin faces four total counts, including lying to the FBI. Wilson faces similar bribery charges and one count of theft of government funds.

The indictment says a construction company was seeking to build a nearly $50 million residential development in Austin’s ward. In exchange for more than $10 million in potential tax-increment financing and other funding from the city, the company was responsible for building streets, adding lights, landscaping, and sidewalk improvements. That company provided “personal benefits” like home improvements, furniture and appliances for Austin’s home and home improvement materials for Wilson’s rental properties starting in 2016 “in an effort to influence them in their official capacities,” a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office says.

Under a redevelopment agreement with the city, the firm identified in the indictment as “Company A” was eligible for $7.3 million in TIF funds and a $3.2 million taxable note. Austin also controlled more than $1 million annually in “menu” funds, which can generally be spent on infrastructure projects at the local alderman’s discretion.

The indictment alleges Austin and Wilson authorized the menu money to benefit the construction company, and “on multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018, Austin coordinated with the construction company owner to seek the city’s release of TIF and other payments.”

According to the indictment, Wilson sent a text message with drawings for kitchen cabinets to be installed at Austin’s house. One of the people involved with the development, referred to as “Individual B,” paid a portion of the cost of the cabinets—a little more than $5,000—but “falsely represent(ed)” that they were for a different home. 

Austin also called an “Individual A” to ask for “tiles in white or vein white” for a bathroom at her home, the indictment says, and accepted an offer from that same person to pay for two “brand new” and “expensive” sump pumps for her home, as well as a dehumidifier. The feds said when they asked Austin about it, she denied receiving the dehumidifier and sump pumps.

Meanwhile, Wilson told Individual A he wanted heating and air conditioning improvements made to one of his investment properties. That person agreed to the request, telling Wilson in a cell phone conversation, “You help me a lot, and I’ll help you,” according to the indictment. Individual A later called another person to tell them he planned to pay for a portion of that new HVAC system because if “I get what I want next week, it’s worth it.” He also agreed to purchase granite countertops for Wilson and Austin’s properties. Not long after the granite offer, he asked for Wilson’s help in getting financial assistance from the city to install new sidewalks within the development. 

“Individual A, now deceased, was a real estate developer and contractor who owned construction companies, including Company A,” the indictment says.

The conspiracy, bribery and false statement counts are each punishable by up to five years in federal prison. Neither Austin nor her attorney could be reached for comment.

Austin is one of a long list of aldermen now facing federal charges, including Ald. Patrick D. Thompson, 11thAld. Ed Burke, 14th; and former Ald. Ricardo Muñoz, 22nd. All have said they are innocent. Other former aldermen face federal scrutiny, but have yet to be charged, including former Ald. Michael Zalewski, 23rd, and Ald. Danny Solis, 25th, who has reportedly been cooperating in a sprawling federal investigation into City Council corruption. 

Austin has been under the federal spotlight since 2017. Agents raided her ward office in June of 2019, and sought state Board of Elections documents regarding three of her political fundraising committees. Subpoenas were also issued for documents pertaining to real estate projects in her ward (including construction of her own home), family members, top aide Wilson and food stamps.

WBEZ reported federal investigators were interested in “development projects in the 34th Ward” and the use of taxpayer subsidies from the city for real estate initiatives.

Austin, formerly the chair of the City Council’s powerful Budget Committee, has represented parts of the West Pullman, Washington Heights, Morgan Park and Roseland neighborhoods since 1994. She was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley to replace her late husband, Lemuel Austin, on the council. She was a loyal ally of both Daley and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot demoted her from chairing the Budget Committee after she took office, and placed her atop a new 19-member Committee on Contracting Oversight & Equity. In recent years, she’s faced health problems, including a torn aorta and testing positive for coronavirus.

More recently, Austin has been fined by the city’s Board of Ethics for violating campaign finance laws, accepting donations from a company that does business with the city in excess of current limits. The board initially levied its highest-ever fine against Austin, but have since scaled it back