Ald. Carrie Austin and chief of staff indicted on bribery charges for allegedly accepting home improvements from developer

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Under a cloud for two years since her ward office was raided by federal agents, 34th Ward Ald. Carrie Austin was indicted on federal bribery charges Thursday along with her chief of staff.

Austin and her top aide, Chester Wilson, shepherded a new real-estate development through City Hall bureaucracy beginning in 2016 and were given home-improvement perks from a developer seeking to influence them, the indictment alleges.

Between them, they allegedly got new kitchen cabinets, granite countertops, bathroom tiling, sump pumps and an HVAC system for free or at a discount.

Austin, 72, was charged with one count of conspiring to use interstate facilities to promote bribery and other charges, according to prosecutors. She became the third sitting Chicago alderman currently under federal indictment and the second to face charges this year.

Wilson, 55, of Chicago, was hit with bribery charges and one count of theft of government funds.

The central developer in the indictment, now deceased, was working on a 91-unit project in Austin’s ward.

Aldermen traditionally have immense control over approval of developments in their district. Austin allegedly approved payments from city funds for infrastructure within the development, acknowledged that she had no objection to issuing building permits, and fought for the release of tax increment financing payments to the developer’s bank.

The indictment alleges she got improvements at her home and Wilson at an investment property he owns.

In December 2016, Wilson allegedly texted one contractor a picture of kitchen cabinets that Austin wanted installed; a few months later, Austin said she would support resurfacing city streets within the development. After that, a contractor paid for Austin’s new kitchen cabinets, claiming they were for an address within the development.

In July 2017 Austin also allegedly asked a developer for tiling — in “white or vein white” — for a bathroom, according to the indictment. A day later she accepted his offer for expensive “brand new” sump pumps, according to the indictment.

And in a phone call a few months later about changes to tax increment financing that would have benefited the contractor, Wilson allegedly told the developer, “make sure they do my heating and air.”

Not long afterward, that developer even offered to help pay for part of the new HVAC at Wilson’s investment property, then texted an associate, “if I get what I want next week, it’s worth it.”

Austin could not be reached for comment and did not immediately return a message left with her ward office.

During a brief interview at City Hall after her office was raided in June 2019, Austin said she hadn’t done anything wrong and would keep working for her constituents. “They didn’t elect me to stand still,” she said.

Austin is the latest in a long line of current and former aldermen to face criminal charges.

The last Chicago alderman to face criminal charges was Patrick Daley Thompson of the 11th Ward, who was accused earlier this year in a seven-count indictment with filing false tax returns and lying to insurance officials about $219,000 in loans and other payments he’d received from Washington Federal Bank for Savings before it was shuttered in 2017.

Another, Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, is currently awaiting trial on sweeping federal racketeering charges.

Documents obtained by the Tribune after the Austin raid showed federal authorities were interested in the construction and sale of a West Pullman home to Austin by a developer in the ward. Thursday’s indictment spelled out that Austin’s residence was not in “Development A” that needed and received authorizations from Austin.

A subpoena at the time showed authorities were seeking records related to a group of interrelated companies and their officers, including 995 LLC, Koal Enterprises, Mako Properties Inc., Maxwell Services and Oakk Construction. Principals at those firms either could not immediately be reached for comment or messages were not immediately returned Thursday.

Before Lori Lightfoot became mayor, Austin was one of the City Council’s top leaders. She was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1994 to replace her husband, Lemuel, who died of a heart attack while in office.

The Austins rose to power in the political organization of Wilson Frost, a South Side politician who served for nearly 20 years on the City Council and became the body’s president pro tempore.

Before becoming alderman, Austin was on the payroll of the City Council Traffic Committee headed by Ald. Anthony Laurino.

Austin was a key Black supporter on the City Council for the agendas of Daley and later Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She chaired the powerful Budget Committee for years, shepherding those mayors’ annual spending plans through the City Council with a brusque style, often calling on opponents to come up with better ideas or keep their criticisms to themselves.

She is the second-longest-serving alderman on the council, after Burke.

Lightfoot stripped Austin of her Budget Committee chairmanship in 2019, instead creating the new Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity, and naming Austin to its helm.

Austin initially was noncommittal about the new post, saying she didn’t want to run a committee “that don’t have no teeth.”

“If it’s not going to have any effect, I don’t need that,” Austin said. “I don’t need a pansy (committee), nah.”

In the years since, the committee hasn’t done much work but it allowed Austin to be a member of the mayor’s leadership team. She has been a reliable ally to Lightfoot, though she hasn’t voted with the mayor 100% of the time.

Austin is known for her at-times fiery demeanor. She has occasionally lashed out harshly at colleagues for what she perceives are disrespectful questions during committee hearings.

When the inspector general recommended firing her son from his city job in a controversy over a vehicle accident, Austin fumed, “I’m sick and tired of this (expletive) city witch-hunting my (expletive) family.”

Tribune reporter Madeline Buckley contributed.

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

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