Edward Vrdolyak

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Edward Vrdolyak
City of Chicago Alderman
In office
1971–1987
Constituency 10th Ward, Chicago
President of the City Council
In office
1977–1983
Personal details
Born Edward Robert Vrdolyak
(1937-12-28) December 28, 1937 (age 76)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Political party Republican
Residence Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Alma mater Mount Carmel High School
St. Joseph's College
University of Chicago Law School


Edward Robert Vrdolyak (/vərˈdli.æk/; born December 28, 1937) is a noted Chicago lawyer and politician. He was a powerful longtime Chicago Alderman and also head of the Cook County Democratic Party before running unsuccessfully for Mayor of Chicago as a Republican. Vrdolyak, born to Croatian immigrant parents, entered a Catholic seminary at age 13, but decided against joining the priesthood. He graduated from Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, then from St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana. He received his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 1963 and began a legal career in private practice, specializing in personal injury cases. Today the Vrdolyak Law Group consists of 16 attorneys. Vrdolyak and his three sons are partners in the firm.

Political career[edit]

He also became actively involved in Chicago politics, and in 1968 he was elected as Democratic Committeeman from Chicago's 10th Ward in the Hegewisch and South Deering areas; a position he held until 1988. In 1971 he was elected alderman, and after defeating Republican Melvin Simonovich, he served as President of the City Council from 1977 to 1983. Vrdolyak earned the nickname "Fast Eddie" because of his skill in back-room deal-making. In 1979, he managed the re-election campaign of Mayor Michael Bilandic. In a colossal upset, Bilandic narrowly lost to maverick Jane Byrne. Despite the fact that Byrne then stripped Vrdolyak of all powers except his aldermanic seat, he became Byrne's chief ally against both independent and Regular Democrats, becoming her floor leader in the Council. In 1982, with Byrne's support, he was elected Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Committee, ousting County Board President George Dunne.

He is most noted for leading the opposition in the City Council to Mayor Harold Washington from 1983 to 1987. Washington had been elected after a three-way primary in which the Byrne-Vrdolyak and pro-Daley factions split the white vote. However, there was a solid majority of 29 aldermen (27 Regular Democrats and two independents) opposed to Washington (21 aldermen, mostly independents, supported the mayor). Vrdolyak became the leader of the opposition group, along with 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke. The Vrdolyak 29 rejected mayoral appointments and appropriations, but could not override the mayor's veto. The resulting political deadlock was labeled "Council Wars".

In 1986, a federal lawsuit forced the redrawing of some aldermanic districts, and special elections for those districts. Three of Vrdolyak's allies were defeated by pro-Washington candidates in the first round of voting. Six weeks later, when Washington ally Luís Gutiérrez won the run-off election in the 26th Ward the council was split 25-25, creating a tie which the mayor could break. At this point, several of the Vrdolyak 29 began to support Washington, giving him a supportive council. Vrdolyak was again stripped of his Council powers. In 1987, he resigned as county Democratic chairman, and ran for mayor as the Solidarity Party nominee [2], defeating a candidate backed by Mayor Washington in the primary. He was defeated by Washington, who got 53% of the vote to Vrdolyak's 42%.[1]

Washington's second term began more smoothly (he died in November 1987), and Vrdolyak's political clout waned. In light of these factors, as well as his growing unpopularity among Democrats, Vrdolyak joined the Republican Party in September 1987.[2] In 1988, Vrdolyak was the Republican candidate for Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. He lost to Democrat Aurelia Pucinski, daughter of Alderman and former US Representative Roman Pucinski. Vrdolyak got only 41% of the vote to 59% for Pucinski. In 1989, Vrdolyak again ran for mayor, in a special election for the last half of Washington's term; he won the Republican primary as a write-in candidate. The general election was won by Democrat Richard M. Daley. Vrdolyak managed less than 4% of the vote, effectively ending his political career.

After his final electoral defeat, Vrdolyak returned to his law practice. He hosted a popular talk radio show from 1993 to 1996 – first on WLS radio (890 AM) and then on WJJD Radio (1160 AM). He also maintained a strong behind-the-scenes presence in Chicago area politics. He became best known for his influence in the appointment and election of Cook County Circuit Court judges. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman confirmed that at least two judges he appointed to the bench were recommended by Vrdolyak.[3] Vrdolyak was also a key adviser to Betty Loren-Maltese, former Town President of the suburb of Cicero. The Vrdolyak Law Group received millions of dollars in legal work from the town of Cicero during the administrations of Loren-Maltese and her successor, Ramiro González. Maltese was convicted in 2002 on federal corruption charges, and González was defeated in the 2005 election.

Controversies[edit]

Vrdolyak has long been the source of controversy, beginning with an attempted murder charge in 1960. The charges were dropped, but helped establish the reputation for toughness that would help him succeed in Chicago's rough political climate. That same reputation would also make him a target for enemies and, eventually, for federal investigators. He was censured by the Illinois State Bar Association in 1990 for a conflict of interest, and again in 2000 for improperly advancing money to personal injury clients. In 2005, Vrdolyak agreed to a 30-day suspension of his law license for allegedly double-billing clients he represented in sexual harassment cases.[4]

Vrdolyak was also implicated in the case of former Cook County Circuit Court Judge George J.W. Smith. Smith pleaded guilty to federal charges of illegally structuring cash withdrawals to avoid tax penalties. Prosecutors claimed the transactions were in furtherance of an alleged bribe paid to a "go-between" in order to secure Smith's appointment. Smith was reportedly appointed by Freeman based on Vrdolyak's recommendation, leading to speculation that Vrdolyak was the alleged "go-between". The investigation did not result in charges of wrongdoing against Vrdolyak, nor in bribery charges against Smith or any other party.[5]

Vrdolyak's role in Cicero politics also drew criticism, and while he was not charged in the Loren-Maltese investigation, his close alliance with the once-imprisoned former Town President was a major issue in the 2005 election. During the campaign, Dominick criticized what he called Vrdolyak's excessive legal bills, and removed Vrdolyak's firm as the town's legal counsel after taking office. However, NBC Chicago reported that the new town attorney, Michael Del Galdo, billed the town over $2 million in 2006—more than twice the average billings when Vrdolyak's firm held the contract.[6]

Federal indictment and conviction[edit]

On May 10, 2007, Vrdolyak was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud.[7] Prosecutors later added additional wire fraud charges, and the final indictment included a total of eight counts. The case centered around property that was sold by the Chicago Medical School. The key witness against Vrdolyak was to be Stuart Levine, a partner in the alleged scheme. Prosecutors charged that Vrdolyak and Levine devised a scheme to use Levine's position on the school's board to steer the $15 million sale of a school building to Smithfield Properties - a developer with ties to Vrdolyak. It was alleged that the two arranged a $1.5 million kickback from Smithfield to Vrdolyak in return for Levine's support.

Levine, a close friend and political ally of Vrdolyak's, was indicted in 2005 for using his positions on the Illinois Teachers Retirement System board and the Illinois Health Facilities board to obtain kickbacks. Levine pleaded guilty in late 2006 and agreed to testify in several corruption cases as a condition of his plea agreement. Prosecutors dropped 22 felony charges in return for his cooperation. Prosecutors have indicated that Levine wore a recording device while discussing some of the alleged schemes. Political insiders expressed surprise at the idea that Vrdolyak would be caught on tape. A long-time power broker and target of investigations, the notoriously careful Vrdolyak has been quoted as saying that he "talk[s] to everyone like they're wearing a wire, even my wife". Chicago alderman Bernard Stone noted that Vrdolyak was always careful about talking on the phone, once telling Stone to "always talk like the government was on the phone with you".[8]

Vrdolyak initially pled not guilty to all charges. Vrdolyak's attorney, Michael Monico, questioned Levine's "credibility, reliability and truthfulness", noting that he agreed to testify under "immense pressure" from prosecutors.[9] Levine also testified at the 2008 trial of Tony Rezko, another powerbroker in Illinois politics. He told the jury that he funneled payoffs for clients who wanted Chicago city contracts through Vrdolyak, including some alleged schemes for which Vrdolyak has not been charged. Monico called Levine's statements in regards to Vrdolyak "absolutely false" and said that he had never heard them before.[10][11]

The trial was set for November 3, 2008. That day, however, an agreement was reached in which prosecutors dropped several of the charges and Vrdolyak pled guilty to a reduced charge of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.[12] The plea agreement stated that Vrdolyak was not cooperating with other investigations, and prosecutors recommended a sentence of 41 months in prison.[13] However, on February 26, 2009, United States District Judge Milton I. Shadur sentenced Vrdolyak to five years of probation, a $50,000 fine and 2,500 hours of community service.[12][14]

However, on January 29, 2010, a federal appeals court overturned the probation sentence on appeal by the prosecution and ordered a resentencing by a different judge.[15] On October 15, 2010 Vrdolyak was sentenced to 10 months in prison. Vrdolyak served his sentence at the federal prison camp in Terre Haute, Indiana.[16][17] He was released from prison on November 17, 2011.

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