Illinois Senate Nominee Has Ties to Corrupt Chicago Locals

Rod Blagojevich’s tenure as Illinois governor may be almost up, but it’s as if he hadn’t noticed. Since his December 9 arrest by FBI agents on charges of conspiring to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat recently vacated by President-Elect Barack Obama, he’s radiated the confidence of someone ready for the long haul. Toward that end, he nominated former State Attorney General Roland Burris, who is black, to serve as Obama’s replacement. He’s effectively challenged U.S. white Democratic senators, a bastion of support for affirmative action, to reject him. 


At first, the senators, led by Nevada’s Harry Reid, said no. When Burris arrived on Capitol Hill on a rainy January 6 for his swearing-in ceremony, senators turned him away, vowing not to seat anyone nominated by Blagojevich. But civil discussion followed, and his approval now appears all but a done deal, especially with the apparent resolution of a procedural issue (the necessity of a signature by the Illinois secretary of state). White senators, predictably, received their comeuppance from black House members, especially Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who charged them with “racism.” Yet if lawmakers really want to scrutinize Burris without inviting such accusations, they have another available line of defense: Burris’s past ties to a pair of corrupt Chicago unions. 


Roland Burris, now 71, served as Illinois attorney general during 1991-95 under Governor Jim Edgar, a Republican. Following his tenure, he pursued elective office, running, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Chicago in 1995 and governor of Illinois in 1998 and 2002; his opponent in that latter race was Blagojevich and a key supporter was Barack Obama. Currently of counsel to the Milwaukee law firm of Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan, and CEO of the Chicago public relations firm of Burris & Lebed, Burris is a consummate insider politician. And in Illinois Democratic Party politics, that’s necessarily drawn him close to organized labor. His association with Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 1001 and International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 734 in particular ought to raise serious questions. 


Early in 2003, LIUNA headquarters was on the verge of imposing a trusteeship on Local 1001, which represents about 2,700 sanitation and other Chicago city workers. For three decades, charged Laborers General Executive Board Attorney Robert Luskin, the local had been under control of the Chicago Mafia, known as “the Outfit.” During this period, local leaders allegedly made nearly $1 million in improper payments to union benefit funds on behalf of more than 30 non-employees, over a dozen of whom were suspected mob associates. LIUNA’s independent hearing officer, Peter Vaira, barred several persons from taking part in local operations. Based on testimony of law enforcement agents, former mob associates, and informants under witness protection, Vaira ruled that Bruno Caruso, his brother Frank, and their first cousin, Leo, had been trusted Outfit associates. He removed them and former local President Ernest Kumerow from office. 


Not long after, Local 1001 bosses, led by new President Nate Gibson, met with an unnamed international union official and “agreed to enter into a voluntary supervision agreement” so long as Burris was appointed trustee. Gibson referred to Burris’ “untarnished integrity and reputation for fairness.” Jim McGough, leader of a Chicago-based union reform movement, Laborers for Justice, thought somewhat less of the idea. He likened putting Burris in charge of the local to having the proverbial fox guard the chicken coop. Moreover, Luskin, who was overseer for the international union’s internal cleanup program during 1995-2000, expressed strong doubts about Burris’ ability to track down union corruption. 


Burris didn’t get the job. On March 2, 2004, Peter Vaira affirmed in all respects LIUNA’s request for a trusteeship, concluding that the move would be necessary “to correct organized crime influence over the local, correct financial malpractice and restore democratic practices.” The following day, March 3, Vaira named Steve Hammond, a Laborers vice president, as trustee. The local promptly petitioned Cook County Circuit Court to enjoin Hammond from taking office. Burris clearly was their man. But the gambit failed. Hammond took office and has remained there since. 


This wasn’t the first time Burris had gone to the mat for a union in legal hot water. Back in 1994, while as Illinois attorney general, he served as a character witness for Robert T. Simpson, a former president of Teamsters Local 743 who had been accused of allowing Donald Peters to take part in union affairs. Peters was one of many individuals named in the Justice Department’s 1988 civil RICO suit against the IBT. Eventually, Peters agreed to resign from all Teamsters offices. Yet the Independent Review Board, the IBT oversight agency created by the out-of-court 1989 civil RICO settlement, determined that Peters – with Simpson’s help – had maintained an office at Local 743, attended local meetings, and was a paid consultant for the local. The IRB ruling was upheld by U.S. District Judge David Edelstein.

There is no evidence Burris broke any laws. And his prospects for being seated, at this writing, are looking better by the day. Just one day after being turned away from Capitol Hill, he had a collegial meeting with several senators. By all accounts, it was a kiss-and-make-up session. Burris’ benefactor, Rod Blagojevich, contrary to his delusions, is all but gone from the scene. The Illinois House of Representatives on January 9 voted 114-1 to impeach the governor. But as much as Burris wants to distance himself from Blago, each man knows that he owes his rise to prominence to a Chicago political infrastructure of which organized labor remains a major part. (BNA Daily Labor Reporter, 1/5/04, 3/4/04; other sources).