The Chicago Syndicate: Illnois General Assembly Scholarships Have Mob Association Now
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Monday, June 01, 2009

Illnois General Assembly Scholarships Have Mob Association Now

If the Tribune's series on political clout influencing University of Illinois admissions hasn't made you angry enough, try this one:

Kurt Berger is a corrupt former Chicago Buildings Department supervisor now in federal prison for taking bribes. A couple of years ago, he had a problem. It wasn't just the FBI.

In 2007, Berger's son was a student at a state school, as Berger was facing time in the federal pen. The feds shut down his bribe operation, and he needed some extra cash for the tuition. But he didn't have enough. So he gladly accepted the gift of your cash. That's right, yours. And who helped him to your cash?

Why, none other than state Sen. James DeLeo (D-How You Doin?), the eminent philanthropist.

Under a little publicized program called the Illinois General Assembly Scholarships, DeLeo provided a year's free tuition for the son of the bribe-taker at Northern Illinois University.

The program is available to all Illinois legislators. Each lawmaker receives the equivalent of two four-year scholarships (actually tuition waivers) for state schools every year. Legislators may parcel these out in any way they wish.

State records show that in 2008, DeLeo handed out eight one-year scholarships, including the one to the Bergers.

Other recipients were the son of Chicago Fire Department Battalion Chief Edward Doherty, whose son attends the University of Illinois at Chicago. Chief Doherty is the brother of Far Northwest Side Ald. Brian Doherty (41st).

Another DeLeo waiver went to the son of James McKay, the chief of death penalty prosecutions at the Cook County state's attorney's office.

Berger doesn't have much of an income in prison. But Chief Doherty makes $120,000 a year, city records show. The county lists McKay's salary at $150,000 a year.

McKay said that he hardly knew DeLeo and that his position had nothing to do with it. He said his son, whom he described as an A student, applied on his own. "I don't have any clout," McKay said. "He's not the son of some politically connected person."

Doherty said his son has received the tuition waiver from DeLeo for the last two years. The chief has known DeLeo for years, and Doherty's wife, Gina, is an aide to state Rep. Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago). "My son's achievements got him the scholarship. He excels," Doherty said. "It's open to anybody who lives in the district and it's up to DeLeo. Were we happy? Absolutely."

The political tuition program has been around for decades, dispensing millions of dollars each year. Those who receive the tuition waivers are eager young people who want to go to college. But some are also clout kids.

The Tribune investigative series "Clout Goes to College" -- by reporters Jodi Cohen, Tara Malone, Stacy St. Clair and Robert Becker -- has been detailing a different aspect of political influence in higher education. Politicians, lobbyists and university trustees frequently use clout to win admission to the U. of I. for students who wouldn't otherwise qualify. But what of high school seniors with top grades and exceptional ACT scores who aren't accepted at U. of I. because somebody's somebody who doesn't belong got their spot? DeLeo and his obedient sidekick, state Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano (R-Jimmy), are big players in the admissions game. Sunday's "Clout Goes to College" installment shows that in the last five years alone, the two have backed at least 50 students who ended up on the admissions clout list.

That list is called "Category I." But the one I'm writing about today -- the money part -- also needs a cool name. How about we call it the "We Don't Want Nobody Nobody Sent Scholarship Fund?"

I figure that, for some clout kids, the two lists intersect.

It's nothing new for DeLeo. A few years ago, he helped the daughter of one of the Chicago Outfit's favorite law enforcement officers, corrupt former Cook County Undersheriff James "The Bohemian" Dvorak. With Dvorak in prison, DeLeo waived tuition for Dvorak's daughter at Eastern Illinois University, though she didn't live in Jimmy's district.

Records show that in the past, DeLeo has accepted campaign donations from mob-controlled businesses. In 2001, the Sun-Times asked him if this meant he was connected.

"What does that mean, mob-associated?" he said. "In the year 2001 is there really a mob in Chicago?"

That was years before DeLeo was mentioned in the recent Family Secrets trial of Outfit chiefs, when mob widow Annie Spilotro testified that DeLeo and zoning lawyer James Banks purchased her husband Michael's restaurant, in a building owned by mob boss Joey "the Clown" Lombardo.

On Friday, we called DeLeo. But not at the casino in Aruba. Instead, we called his Springfield office to ask about both of the clout lists. But no word from Jimmy. And Kurt Berger? He'll spend the summer in Duluth, Minn., as inmate No. 19350-424, and is scheduled for release in September.

That's an exciting time, when students are eager to buy new school supplies, the crisp notebooks, pencil sharpeners, snazzy book bags. And school begins anew, the Chicago Way.

Thanks to John Kass

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