Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) and her chief of staff, Chester Wilson Jr., pleaded not guilty on Thursday to federal charges accusing them of taking bribes from a construction company seeking Austin’s support for a development in her ward.
One week ago, Austin, 72, was charged with one count of conspiring to use interstate facilities to promote bribery, two counts of using interstate facilities to promote bribery, and one count of willfully making materially false statements to the FBI.
Wilson, 55, was charged with one count of conspiring to use interstate facilities to promote bribery, two counts of using interstate facilities to promote bribery, and count of theft of government funds.
Both pleaded not guilty on Thursday during an arraignment hearing held by teleconference with U.S. District Judge John Kness.
Both defendants will be allowed to remain free on $4,500 bond as they await trial, but must surrender their passports, provide DNA samples, and regularly report to the court’s pretrial services office. Wilson also is prohibited from leaving the Northern District of Illinois as he awaits trial.
The next hearing in the case is set for Aug. 10, also by pone.
The indictment against Austin and Wilson claims that starting in 2014, a construction company planned to build a residential development in Austin’s ward at a cost of about $49.6 million. An agreement with the city dictated that the company would make infrastructure improvements in the new development – including constructing new interior streets, street lighting, landscaping, and sidewalk improvements.
The company was also eligible for more than $10 million in tax incrementing financing and other payments from the city, the indictment said.
Beginning in 2016, Austin and Wilson were provided with personal benefits by the construction company and other contractors so as to sway them, the indictment said. The benefits included home improvements, furniture, and appliances for Austin’s own home, and home improvement materials and services for rental properties that Wilson owned, the indictment alleged.
The indictment claims that in June 2017, a contractor for the development paid a bill for $5,250 to cover part of the purchase price for kitchen cabinets at Austin’s home by falsely claiming the cabinets were for a house in the new development.
The following month, Austin accepted an offer from a contractor on the development project to pay for two “brand new” and “expensive” sump pumps, and to have a family member buy and install a new dehumidifier, the indictment said.
Wilson also solicited benefits from the contractor for his rental home, including “heating and air” services, the indictment said. In October 2017, the contractor told Wilson he would pay for part of the HVAC system at Wilson’s rental property because “you’ll help me a lot, and I’ll help you,” the indictment said.
The indictment claims that Austin and Wilson also authorized the spending of aldermanic menu funds for the construction company to work on infrastructure in the new development, and also coordinated with the construction company owner to seek city tax increment financing money and other payouts several times in 2017 and 2018.
The theft charge against Wilson alleges that he ran a separate scheme to buy Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at a discount. Wilson drew a City of Chicago salary and was not eligible for food stamps, but he got a SNAP card by paying cash to someone in an amount below the face value of the card, the indictment alleges.
Austin’s ward office near 111th Street and Normal Avenue was raided in June 2019. FBI agents left the office in unmarked vehicles that day after removing what appeared to be computer equipment and boxes of evidence.
She has insisted since that raid that she has done nothing wrong, and will continue to serve as alderman of the 34th Ward.
Earlier this week, she attended a virtual City Council Finance Committee meeting. She remains chair of the City Council Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity.
Austin, the second-longest serving member of the City Council, is now the third sitting alderperson to face federal charges.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th), the longest-serving member of the City Council, is awaiting trial on federal racketeering charges. Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, the nephew and grandson of two former mayors, was charged earlier this year with filing false tax returns and lying to insurance officials about loans he received from a failed bank in his ward.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly called for Burke to resign from the City Council over his indictment, but has not done the same for Austin and Thompson. Instead, she has said facing criminal charges would make it very difficult for them to focus on their jobs as aldermen.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Lightfoot said she plans to have “a substantive conversation with [Austin] about her future role in the City Council.”
“As I have said consistently since the beginning of my tenure, having a federal indictment looming—particularly over your alleged dealings as an alderman— makes your ability to deliver for residents and your effectiveness as a member of the City Council, let alone a Committee Chair, very difficult,” she said.
Original post: chicago.cbslocal.com