Tag Archives: corruption

Politics and Poison

Chicago 1907, a Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him
by Steve Shukis

A charismatic, resolute Catholic priest takes on Chicago’s corrupt, turn-of-the-twentieth century political machine in Poisoned, a meticulously researched, true-life account of the fight to save a self-professed-innocent death row inmate.

Herman Billik acknowledged having a romantic fling with Rose Vrzal, a married mother of seven from Chicago’s ethnic Bohemian Pilsen neighborhood. But he vehemently denied poisoning her—and her husband and four daughters—with arsenic.

Poisoned coverDespite evidence that someone else may have committed the murders in 1905 and 1906—and that key witnesses later lied on the stand based on illegal interrogation and coercion by investigators—Billik remained incarcerated for a decade as a politically allied ring of officials from the Cook County coroner to the state’s attorney, to the trial judge, to the Chicago chief of police all the way up to the governor of Illinois, fought both actively and through intentional inaction to keep his conviction from being overturned.

The political landscape of the day ultimately becomes the story in Poisoned. That landscape was one in which decisions were based not on justice for the wrongly accused, but on damage control, especially in election years, with any admission of witness tampering, payoffs, and other illegal tactics tantamount to political suicide. It nearly supersedes in interest the actual facts of the Billik case.

Not that the facts are boring. Soap opera-like, the 1907 trial riveted the nation, and quickly became a bona fide media circus. With the proceedings on their doorstep, Chicagoans clamored for front-row seats.

In the summer of 1907, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox were top contenders for the upcoming World Series. “But the hottest ticket in town was for Judge Barnes’ courtroom,” Shukis writes. “Men in neckties and bowler hats, and ladies in floor-length dresses, their wide-brimmed hats decorated with feathers and ribbons, filled every seat in the room, and it would stay that way for the entire trial.”

The twists that should have—but failed to—save Billik are often jaw dropping. “Clues were brought forward, but only some were investigated,” Shukis writes.

Shukis notes that the depth of corruption was evident in the fact that an assistant coroner’s physician named Henry Reinhardt found no arsenic in the body of William Niemann. Niemann, a son-in-law of the murdered Vrzal family, died mysteriously in November 1907 while he was married to Emma Vrzal Niemann, a surviving daughter who many suspected was the true murderer. Had arsenic been found in Niemann’s body, a case could have been made to release Billik and to convict Emma of all of the murders. But after a cursory examination, Reinhardt reported no trace of it.

Reinhardt’s boss, Cook County Coroner Peter Hoffman, “clearly did not want poison to be discovered,” Shukis writes. “It would have cast an enormous cloud over Billik’s conviction and suggested that he, State’s Attorney Healy, Police Chief Shippy, and Judge Barnes had condemned an innocent man.”

Reinhardt “owed his job to Coroner Hoffman and the Republican cabal that ruled local government,” Shukis continues. “There was little incentive for Reinhardt to search very hard for poison when its discovery would only create problems for him and the rest of his own political organization.”


Author Steve Shukis

Shukis does an excellent job of organizing the book, weaving in short snippets of background and context throughout, which illuminate the points he is trying to make. He explains how arsenic poisoning affects the body and how, if given in small doses over time, arsenic poisoning can look like death from natural causes. He brings in the Republican National Convention of 1908, which was held in Chicago, to illustrate the power of the city, state, and national political machine. He discusses other murder trials, including that of serial killer Johann Hoch, who was hanged in Chicago in February 1906 on the same gallows later prepared for Billik, and happenings in Chicago and nationwide that affected and motivated those involved in the Billik case. And he points to other scandals, some years later, which embroiled officials involved in the Billik case, illustrating the dubious character of those people.

Although some readers familiar with Chicago history might already know the outcome of Billik’s case when they pick up Poisoned, for those new to the story, Shukis does a great job of not giving away the ending. It flows very much like a novel, building in page-turner intensity throughout. Nowhere in any of the cover matter is the fate of Billik or Emma Vrzal Niemann revealed, and the author successfully avoids excessive foreshadowing that would have wrecked the suspense.

The author also skillfully slips in his analysis of the story through the metered use, here and there, of a key word or two. When Cook County Circuit Judge Albert Barnes, in 1907, denies Billik a motion for a new trial, Shukis writes, for instance, that he “righteously declared that no man had ever received a fairer trial.”

Poisoned could have been improved with additional pictures. The 300-page book includes only about a dozen photographs, almost all of them posed individual shots of players in the Billik drama, mug shots of Billik, and images of family members appearing at inquests and at the trial. The author does a nice job of weaving into the text background on the Pilsen neighborhood and other tidbits about the era, such as the anarchist movement, Chicago baseball, and other infamous murder trials. Photos illustrating that background would have helped bring the story to life, and would have helped break up long stretches of gray text. It would have been nice to see, for example, historical newspaper images of the massive crowds that were drawn to public demonstrations seeking Billik’s pardon.

Despite these minor quibbles, Poisoned is a finely written, riveting indictment of Chicago’s early twentieth-century political machine, a fitting remembrance of the self-professed innocent man ensnared by it and of those who dared to stand up against it.

Four-Star Review

September 2014, TitleTown Publishing
$26.95, hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN: 978-099119381-3

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann


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All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself
out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison
by Jeff Coen and John Chase



Jeff Coen and John Chase, two Chicago Tribune reporters who devoted years to covering Rod Blagojevich’s triumphs and travails, have distilled those experiences (and mountains of transcripts, both wiretap and courtroom) into Golden, a dense, often infuriating account of their subject’s unlikely rise to the position of9781569763391 Golden hi res cover Governor of Illinois, and his subsequent highly publicized fall from grace, the latter precipitated by his attempts to realize personal profit from his opportunity to name a successor to the United States Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama upon Obama’s election to the White House. That effort was encapsulated in the public’s mind by a remark Blagojevich made to one of his staffers in a telephone conversation monitored by the FBI, a remark that also provides the book’s title: “I mean I, I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking—golden. And I, I’m not just not giving it up for fucking nothing.”

Among the alternatives to “fucking nothing” discussed by the state’s chief executive and his team of advisers was the possibility of asking the President-elect to name Blagojevich as Secretary of Health and Human Services, or perhaps Secretary of Commerce, or maybe White House support for a proposed large nonprofit organization that Blagojevich would head for a fat salary. (The evidence indicates that Obama’s White House transition team, who preferred to see Valerie Jarrett named to the seat, dismissed the Governor’s heavy-handed horse-trading efforts, and Blagojevich, facing increasingly outraged public criticism, eventually named former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to Obama’s Senate seat. Jarrett now serves as a special assistant to the President.)

Golden recounts the whole of Blagojevich’s unlikely, undistinguished political career. (He never lost an election held outside a jury room.) After growing up in Chicago, he attended law school at Pepperdine, then launched his career as a clerk in the office of powerful Chicago alderman Edward Vrdolyak, before landing a position as an assistant state’s attorney for Cook County, where he served as an unremarkable prosecutor. He married Patricia Mell, daughter of Richard Mell, yet another powerful (and recently resigned) Chicago alderman (and later one of Blagojevich’s most persistent political enemies), and with the help of his family connections won election in 1992 to the Illinois General Assembly, where he represented part of Chicago’s North Side. In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the state’s 5th District, thereby winning the seat long held by Dan Rostenkowski, whose career also ended in felony conviction and imprisonment.

Blagojevich, who was re-elected in 1998 and 2000, wasn’t much of a Congressional star, and was later mocked by opponents who claimed that his only accomplishment during his Washington years was to direct the naming of a new post office after a fallen police officer. In 1999, Blagojevich, whose parents immigrated to the United States from the former Yugoslavia, accompanied Rev. Jesse Jackson to Belgrade as Jackson successfully negotiated with Slobodan Milošević for the release of three U.S. soldiers taken prisoner while serving with U.N. peacekeeping forces. Thus Blagojevich in Washington.

According to the account provided by Coen and Chase, these early years in Blagojevich’s political career were not particularly distinguished by corruption, although the authors paint him as a policy lightweight with a comical commitment to his hair (staffers were directed to maintain perpetual custody of an oval black hairbrush they called “the football”). The trouble started with the money required to run for the state’s top job. He won election as Illinois Governor in 2002—the first Democrat to do so in decades—substantially assisted by more than $1 million in donations “bundled” by one Tony Rezko, a Chicago businessman and longtime political operator who was himself convicted on federal charges of fraud, bribery, and corruption in 2008, and who is now serving a sentence of 10.5 years. Amusingly, Blagojevich presented himself to Illinois voters as a “reform” candidate in contrast to the scandal-plagued career of his predecessor, Republican George Ryan, who also was convicted on federal corruption charges and served five years in prison. The charges against Rezko arose from a federal investigation called Operation Board Games, which was directed into pay-for-play allegations into business conducted with the Illinois Teachers System Board and the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board.

Rezko, whose status as a major Blagojevich fundraiser was mentioned frequently by the prosecution throughout his trial, partnered with one Stuart Levine, yet another bipartisan “fundraiser,” to assist Blagojevich in establishing his first administration. The two men controlled votes on state boards that, the prosecution argued, made decisions about very large state contracts for the management of state-owned real estate and large retirement funds, always ensuring a slice came off the top for them personally. Their ability to manage the boards in question came from their ability to manage appointments to said boards, thanks to their influence with the Governor.

For Rezko and Levine, the proximity and influence accorded to them by the Governor by their fundraising prowess—“the access,” as Levine testified during Rezko’s trial—was easily converted into personal gain, especially in the cases of the numerous boards and commissions that had to be staffed. Such appointments were often determined by Rezko, Levine, and Christopher Kelly, a Blagojevich advisor who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2009.

Coen and Chase write that, “But when it came to some of the most pivotal commissions, it was often Rezko and Kelly who had much of the say over which loyalists were named. In many cases, those they picked were not the best people for the job but were the best at taking direction from Rezko and Kelly when the pair communicated the wishes of ‘the administration.’”

Coen and 220px-Rod_Blagojevich_mug_shotChase go on to say that these loyalists were little more than puppets who were allowed control of the reins only once a contractor had ponied up. They write that, “Lucrative contracts always had room for many to siphon away extra money. In many instances, even the board members who were following directions from men like Rezko and Levine would be kept in the dark about who was taking in illegal payments for themselves from state business. Levine found a way to take bribes through the hospital panel, but even more money was to be had at the Teacher’s Retirement System of Illinois (TRS) …”

Rigging the system allowed Rezko, Kelly, Levine, et al. to select the “consultants” with whom they wanted to work and to collect “finder’s fees” when “allocations” were made. The authors write that, “The cover was the consultants linked the investment firm with TRS. In reality, the consultants had done little to no work since the deals were already preordained by the insiders. Many of the firms agreed to hire the fake consultants and pay the fees knowing they might very well have been paying off somebody in exchange for access to state funds. That was just the way it was done in Illinois, many knew.”

Among the most interesting elements in Golden is its revelation of the insatiable requirement for campaign money at the base of most of Blagojevich’s offenses. Although his administration was, from the first, solidly grounded in the Illinois tradition of pay-to-play politics, most of the monies directed toward the Governor went to his campaign fund, and hence weren’t available for his personal use. Judging by the account in Golden, Blagojevich and his family were in a state not far from real financial distress by the time he was finally arrested in December 2008.

The detailed reporting of Coen and Chase, most notably of the Governor’s own words, leaves little doubt that the Blagojevich administration was a dog’s breakfast of corrupt decision-making, although it is far from clear that Blagojevich was making all the decisions. Coen and Chase describe a chief executive who didn’t enjoy being Governor and spent little time on his public responsibilities—often as little as two to eight hours a week, according to his staff—a publicity hound far more interested in participating in Cubs radio shows than governing the state. The comprehensiveness of their account is sometimes daunting, as Golden reads like 500 pages of newspaper prose and is occasionally a bit of a grind, but this is a necessary read for anyone—even Chicagoans and Illinoisans familiar with the story—concerned by the decline of American “democracy” into cynical money corruption.

Just before midnight on July 15, 2013, Blagojevich’s indefatigable lawyers appealed his conviction on seventeen corruption counts, which resulted in a fourteen-year sentence now being served in a minimum-security federal facility in Englewood, Colorado, where media accounts report that Blagojevich is “teaching Civil War history” and “learning to play the guitar.” The appeal also asks for reconsideration of Blagojevich’s sentence.

Three-Star Review

September 2012, Chicago Review Press
Politics/Current Affairs
$27.95, hardcover, 486 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-56976-339-1

—Reviewed by Patrick Quinn


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