Convicted politicians ask for second chance

In Chicago, four candidates in council race have served time in prison for corruption

February 18, 2007|By P.J. Huffstutter | P.J. Huffstutter,Los Angeles Times

CHICAGO -- His arms stuffed with campaign signs and brochures, Ambrosio Medrano spent a recent evening knocking on neighborhood doors and telling voters why he deserves a seat on the city council in this month's election.

He'd take care of cracked sidewalks, he said, and improve trash pickup. "Besides," Medrano told one voter while standing on the front stoop, "I was an alderman here before, and I did a very good job representing the people."

But Medrano skipped over the reason he left politics in 1996: He pleaded guilty to extortion and taking bribes while in office and served 21 months in federal prison. Prosecutors said he used some of the $31,000 in bribes to build an addition to his home in the west-side neighborhood of Pilsen.

"What? I made a mistake. I paid the price," said Medrano, 53. "In Chicago, you can get a second chance."

The field of candidates in the Feb. 27 council race has an only-in-Chicago feel: Medrano is one of four who were convicted on corruption charges, served time in prison and are now trying to reclaim their seats.

Three of the men - Medrano, Virgil Jones, 57, and Percy Giles, 55 - were busted in the sweeping federal Operation Silver Shovel investigation in the 1990s. Wallace Davis Jr., a 55-year-old restaurant owner, was convicted in the 1980s of extortion and taking bribes while serving as an alderman, in a separate sting.

The campaigns have sparked a statewide conflict over the rights of ex-convicts.

Illinois law says that a convicted felon is not allowed to hold municipal office. But the state constitution allows people with a criminal past to hold a state job - including governor and attorney general - once their sentence has been served and their parole is complete. Medrano and Jones' bids to return to their positions at City Hall, which come with an annual paycheck of more than $98,000, are being challenged in court. The state Supreme Court is taking and reviewing briefs filed by both men and their opponents, and is expected to issue a decision before the Feb. 27 election. Both sides, as well as local election officials, hope the ruling will decide whether the state constitutional right of a felon to be a state public servant extends to city jobs.

Even the Illinois Legislature is weighing in on the matter: Rep. John Fritchey, a Democrat who represents a portion of Chicago, has introduced a bill that would bar former elected officials convicted of crimes related to their public office from seeking any elected position - local or state.

"These are people who sold their office," said Clint Krislov, a Chicago attorney representing a Chicago resident who is suing to prevent Jones from being on the ballot. "Why should the law give them the chance to do it again?"

Medrano's response, when told of such criticism: "Haven't you ever heard of turning over a new leaf? Finding redemption? Learning from your mistakes?"

At least one Chicago city council candidate said being a felon can help a local candidate. Daryl Jones, a prosecutor with the Cook County State's Attorney Office, is running for the seat in the 37th Ward on Chicago's west side. So, too, is Percy Giles.

In 1999, local voters re-elected Giles as their alderman: Around the same time, he had been indicted on charges of, among other things, bribery and racketeering. (Giles stepped down later that year when a jury found him guilty.)

"There are a lot of people who either have served time in prison or have a family member who's been convicted of a crime," said Jones, 29. "How can you criticize a candidate for going to prison, if you'll alienate the voters at the same time?"

In a town with more FBI corruption investigation units than any other - and in a state where racketeering cases long have been part of the political landscape - facing federal charges has, at times, seemed an occupational hazard.

Dozens of city employees and members of Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration have been arrested in recent years. In January, Alderman Arenda Troutman was charged with taking a $5,000 bribe in exchange for helping a real estate developer land a project in her South Side community.

Many Chicagoans have resigned themselves to a government greased by graft. But the number of politicos seeking forgiveness at the polls is seen as particularly audacious, even by Chicago standards.

"I've been telling everyone it's like Marion Barry has come to the Midwest," Fritchey fumed. "It's embarrassing."

Just southwest of downtown, the 25th Ward is dominated by clusters of working-class neighborhoods where city workers live side-by-side with growing pockets of wealthy professionals.

Medrano was raised here and, since 1967, has lived in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen. The son of Mexican migrant workers, he first volunteered with local aldermanic races and worked on Mayor Daley's election campaign in 1988. He won a 25th Ward seat in 1991 and was re-elected in 1995.

P.J. Huffstutter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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