Artifact of old-school Chicago politics on trial

CHICAGO — The grizzled Chicago Democrat has compared himself to a virile hog, likened a then-chief prosecutor to a Nazi and bragged about directing government investigators to kiss his posterior.

William Beavers’ you-can’t-touch-me bravado will be put to the test as the former police officer-turned-politician beats a path — well-worn in Illinois — to a federal courthouse for testimony in his tax-evasion trial this week.

The combative Cook County commissioner stands accused of diverting more than $225,000 from campaign coffers to feed a casino-gambling habit and for other personal use without reporting it. Jury selection began Monday, and opening statements are expected later this week.

With his booming voice and devil-may-care persona, the 77-year-old Beavers is seen by many as an artifact old-school Chicago pols.

“He’s of a generation that felt, if you win election, the seat isn’t in the public trust — it’s yours as a spoil of war,” said David Morrison, of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “You now have license to look out for yourself and your family.”

Beavers’ fondness for gambling will feature prominently at the trial, according to prosecutors, who say that points to his motive. Beavers also is accused of failing to declare that he took more than $68,000 in campaign money and put it in a city fund to bump the monthly pension he got for his years as an alderman from nearly $3,000 to more than $6,000.

There’s a bit of deja vu at Beavers’ trial. It’s taking place in the same courtroom as that of disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The judge is the same, as are many of the defense attorneys and some of the prosecutors.

Blagojevich, whose case wasn’t otherwise linked to Beavers’, is serving a 14-year prison sentence on multiple corruption convictions, including charges that he tried to sell President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat.

One question, says Tom Gradel, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is whether Chicago politics is no longer as corrupt as it once was.

“Beavers wasn’t bashful about talking about his wheeling and dealing,” he said. “But I don’t see too much difference in the new school. Now, it’s about campaign contributions, whereas old school may have relied on kickback from employees.”

Politicians, he said, operate “on the borders between what’s acceptable and criminal” and are good at adapting to stay on that line.

“Once that line is changed by law enforcement, they move into different grayer areas — away from the clearly criminal areas,” he said.

Other much-younger Illinois politicians have recently found themselves in legal trouble. Last month, 47-year-old Jesse Jackson Jr., once viewed hopefully as a new-age politician, resigned from Congress amid an investigation of his campaign finances.

One of Beavers’ attorneys is Sam Adam Jr., who was Blagojevich’s lead lawyer at the Democrat governor’s first corruption trial. That trial ended with the jury deadlocked on all but one charge, leading to a second decisive trial.

Adam’s penchant for showmanship and delighting in verbal brawls meshes well with Beavers’ public image.

Beavers’ most famous rhetorical flourish came several years ago when he offered a favorable estimation of his own influence by calling himself “a hog with big nuts.”

He’s hardly proven a wilting flower since his February indictment.

Within minutes of entering a not guilty plea, he walked down to the lobby of Chicago’s federal courthouse and accused then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of using “Gestapo-type tactics” to win convictions. Fitzgerald, who was responsible for the indictment of Blagojevich and dozens of other Illinois politicians, retired over the summer to enter private practice.

Beavers has said he was indicted in an act of retribution by investigators for refusing to wear a wire against another county commissioner, John Daley, the brother of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Beavers has said he paid all the money at issue in his tax case — albeit only after he realized he was under investigation.

He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of filing false tax returns and one of obstructing the Internal Revenue Service. Each count carries a maximum three-year prison sentence.

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