September 22, 2011
What if lawmakers passed a bill that allowed two dozen hand-picked political insiders to fan out across the state and walk up to you and demand your cash?
Not ask but demand.
Got a problem?
There is no passion in the demand, no anger, no urgency. Just a flat look, impassive, the way a hungry hyena on the savanna looks at a herd of meek chumbolones and says, "That one."
Or the way a butcher sizes up some hanging beef before going to work on it. Except, you're the beef.
And after you give up the money, the guy smiles to himself and slides into a nice black Escalade. He doesn't thank you. But he sure thanks the politicians who made it happen. He helps re-elect them, so they or their families make fortunes.
But you? You don't get thanks. He'd no more thank you than he'd thank a dog.
Now, do you have a problem with that?
Pardon me? I didn't hear you. So let me ask you again.
Then you must be in Illinois.
That's the state where Chicago machine politicians and their union muscle boys slap taxpayers in the mouth, year after year after year, and all voters do is repeat that line from "Animal House," "Thank you, sir, may I have another?"
It's revealed in some fascinating (and infuriating) Tribune stories by investigative reporter Jason Grotto, who in collaboration with WGN-TV uncovered some amazing city pension scams.
What's really infuriating is that it all might just be quite legal. But is it right?
The Tribune reported that in 1991, state law was quietly changed to allow Chicago union bosses to cash in and base their city taxpayer-funded pensions not on their wages from their city jobs but on their salaries as union bosses.
That neat little trick inflated the pensions dramatically. And who pays? When you're at a card game and you can't spot the sucker, guess what? You're the sucker.
So now, for example, Cement Workers Union boss Liberato "Al" Naimoli is receiving $157,752 in pension from a $15,264-per-year city job.
Chicago Federation of Labor retired President Dennis Gannon is receiving $158,258 for a $55,474 city job.
And Jim McNally, an officer with Operating Engineers Local 150, gets a $114,935-a-year pension for a $57,200 city job.
What's your pension like?
Back then, there was no debate. No official state analysis. And that's the way our politicians like it. And two decades later, some 23 bosses stand to draw $56 million from two weakened City of Chicago pension funds.
After I read Grotto's reporting, I was so angry I could hardly see. Desperate people are out of work in Illinois.
There are hardworking union people who never got such sweet pensions. There are coal miners in southern Illinois who've watched their fathers spit out pieces of their lungs and live on chicken feed pensions, and then the mines close and there's no work.
And there are hardworking nonunion employees who don't have such perks. And taxpayers who are getting squeezed don't have such perks. What do taxpayers get? Some get to lose their homes, and they'll be lucky to have dog food to eat if they live to be old.
But the winners will be just fine.
Unfortunately, the winners aren't holding news conferences to take the credit. And the guys who made it happen aren't holding news conferences either. So let me help the bashful boys:
The mayor of Chicago in 1991 was Richard M. Daley. He'd rule for years. He not only had labor peace, he could send out union muscle to elect his candidates, from judges to governors and even then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who has since received a promotion. In his new job, no longer the union beneficiary but the antagonist, Emanuel realizes that all the money is gone.
But during those decades of labor peace, Daley was boss and his brothers prospered, becoming wealthy in banking, insurance and zoning law.
The speaker of the Illinois House was Michael Madigan. He's still speaker. He's been speaker for most, if not all, of your lifetime, as he's built up his own fortune reducing taxes for downtown real estate barons. He wants organized labor to help his daughter become governor someday.
The governor who signed the bill was Big Jim Thompson on his last day in office. A Republican, Thompson has always gotten along splendidly with Democrats. So who says there's no bipartisan Combine?
One of the politicians who used legislative sleight-of-hand to pave the way for the deal was then-state Sen. Jeremiah Joyce, one-half of Daley's political brain, who later became Mr. O'Hare for all the influence he had in contracts at the airport. Joyce didn't talk to the Tribune for the story.
But Cook County Commissioner John Daley, the mayor's little brother, was a state senator from Bridgeport in 1991. He told Grotto that he didn't remember the bill.
"I don't recall at all," said Johnny.
Johnny, Johnny, oh, Johnny. Doesn't the real phrase go like this?
At this point in time, to the best of my knowledge, I can't recall.
At least, that's what they must say in a "realistic" TV drama, when some "powerful" Chicago politician, usually a black guy, is about to get hauled before a grand jury.
Like I said, it's probably not illegal.
But it sure is Illinois.
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