Former Chicago Ald. Edward Vrdolyak earned the nickname "Fast Eddie" for his bare-knuckled ability to work the angles. But for the second time in the past decade, Vrdolyak has been indicted on charges of using his influence to shoehorn his way into a big-money deal and turn a handsome profit for himself and his connected friends in spite of doing little or no work.
In charges made public Tuesday, federal prosecutors alleged Vrdolyak muscled in on one of the biggest bonanzas of them all — the record $9.2 billion settlement with the tobacco companies from the late 1990s.
Prosecutors charged that Vrdolyak worked out a secret deal with other attorneys to collect as much as $65 million even though he'd done no work on the tobacco case. The indictment did not make clear just how much the former alderman actually pocketed. The case was unsealed last week without fanfare by low-key U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon's office. His spokesman, Joseph Fitzpatrick, declined comment Tuesday.
Vrdolyak, who turns 79 next month, could face up to five years in prison if convicted of both counts of impeding the IRS and income tax evasion. His lawyer, Michael Monico, said he was dismayed by the government's decision to charge Vrdolyak. He said the former longtime alderman will plead not guilty to the two-count indictment Tuesday in federal court.
Vrdolyak was added to an indictment against attorney Daniel Soso, a former Chicago police officer who once ran for alderman with Vrdolyak's backing. Soso was originally indicted alone in May 2015 on charges of failing to pay about $780,000 in taxes related to the settlement money.
Despite Vrdolyak's reputation for skirting criminal probes, the case marks the second time in less than a decade that the onetime political powerhouse faced criminal charges. In 2010, Vrdolyak was sentenced to 10 months in prison for his role in a $1.5 million real estate kickback scheme that had links to the federal probe that felled then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Like many Chicago politicians, Vrdolyak got his start by working precincts at election time and within a few years he had grown a formidable ward organization. In 1970, he survived scandal when his brother, Peter, was indicted on charges of gambling and using prostitutes as door prizes during Vrdolyak ward events, according to Tribune stories from the time. Peter Vrdolyak was convicted; his brother was not charged.
First elected alderman of the Far Southeast Side's 10th Ward in 1971, Vrdolyak, the son of Croatian-born tavern keepers, quickly earned a reputation as a consummate Chicago politician, brash at times but with a keen sense of how to do business the old-fashioned way. A Tribune editorial from his freshman term called Vrdolyak an "influence-peddler and backroom wheeler and dealer almost without peer in a city noted for them."
In an interview that year, Vrdolyak said he lived by the axiom that "if you're good to people, they reciprocate."
"They send business your way, so you get jobs for people," he said. "That's the way it's done. Me — it's the only place these people can go. I'm the committeeman, alderman, father confessor, cop, lawyer, employment agency. Me. I'm the man."
In the 1980s, Vrdolyak became Cook County Democratic chairman, led the "Vrdolyak 29" block of white aldermen who frustrated Mayor Harold Washington and twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor. After Washington's death, Vrdolyak ran as a Republican for mayor but made his worst showing ever — and the bitterness of that race still showed years later as Mayor Richard M. Daley tightened his grip on City Hall.
"You've got to understand something about the Irish, the Daley Irish," he told the Tribune in 1996. "It's the Irish first, and everybody else is a Polack."
Through the years, Vrdolyak has had to defend himself against allegations he was cozy with the Chicago mob. In 1983, Vrdolyak wrote a letter to the Tribune detailing his close relationship with Joe Salas, a reputed hit man who was convicted in the 1979 abduction and murder of a Florida agriculture inspector. Vrdolyak, who had sponsored Salas for a city job, wrote that he'd been friends with Salas' family for years and "attempted to counsel (them) against any anti-social behavior."
Later, after his power at City Hall waned, Vrdolyak found political refuge in the alleged mob stronghold of Cicero, where he was paid millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded fees under then-town President Betty Loren-Maltese, who was later convicted of corruption.
The indictment made public Tuesday alleges Vrdolyak was in the middle of a scheme that stemmed from a series of lawsuits brought by some 46 states seeking to recover Medicaid funds the state had spent treating smoking-related diseases from tobacco giants such as Phillip Morris. The tobacco companies eventually negotiated a series of settlements totaling $206 billion.
The $9.2 billion settlement in Illinois' suit sparked controversy after it was revealed that then-Attorney General Jim Ryan had negotiated a contingency arrangement promising 10 percent of the payout to four law firms that handled the litigation. That figure was dramatically reduced after years of court arbitration, but in the end, Ryan agreed to pay a total of $188.5 million to several law firms.
One of those firms was the Seattle-based Hagens Berman, which was headed by attorney Steve Berman. According to the indictment, Berman entered into a secret agreement in 1996 to pay Vrdolyak and Soso fees from the settlement and hide the payments from the attorney general and tobacco companies. Under the final deal struck in 1999, Vrdolyak expected to receive about $65 million from Berman. The firm has denied any attempt to conceal payments.
In 2005, while investigating Soso for failure to pay income taxes, the Internal Revenue Service learned that he had been receiving large payments from Vrdolyak and failed to report the income, the charges alleged. The IRS then served Vrdolyak with a levy notice requiring him to pay the IRS instead of Soso because of all the back taxes owed.
That November, Vrdolyak sent a fax to an IRS investigator claiming that he was no longer paying Soso and therefore he owed them no money. The fax stated that if there were any payments made in the future he "intended to honor the 2005 levy served on him" and remit the funds to the IRS, according to the charges. But according to the indictment, money again began changing hands two years later, with Soso hiding funds paid to him by Berman and Vrdolyak in accounts used by his relatives and girlfriend.
In 2011, Vrdolyak sent payments totaling $170,000 to Soso, including checks that a Vrdolyak relative wrote, the indictment alleged.
The indictment comes five years after Vrdolyak was released from prison on his 2007 case. He pleaded guilty to fraud for his role in a kickback scheme in which a Gold Coast real estate deal was rigged so he could secretly split a $1.5 million finder's fee with corrupt insider Stuart Levine, a close friend who later secretly wore a wire on Vrdolyak.
In 2009, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur spurned prosecution calls for prison and sentenced Vrdolyak to probation for a fraud conviction, but prosecutors appealed.
The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals later ordered that a different judge resentence Vrdolyak, calling Shadur's punishment a "slap on the wrist" that ignored Vrdolyak's status as one of Chicago's most influential insiders. The appeals court also held that Shadur gave too much weight to dozens of letters — including one from then-Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher — attesting to his acts of generosity.
In October 2010, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly sentenced Vrdolyak to 10 months in prison as well as five months in a work-release center and an additional five months in home confinement.
Reported by Jason Meisner and Jeff Coen.
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