It wasn't the two federal charges themselves last week against two longtime Daley aides that convinced people of the mayor's potential vulnerability. The two men were charged with crimes relating to a single instance of promoting a temporary, low-level city employee to permanent status. The criminal charges, taken by themselves, certainly didn't come close to reflecting the U.S. Attorney's claim of "massive fraud" in the city's hiring practices.
You'd think if there was, indeed, massive fraud, the feds would have thrown the book at Bridgeport natives Robert Sorich and Patrick Slattery. Instead, they were hit with just one count each for mailing an existing city employee a notification of promotion.
And some of the other alleged misdeeds documented in the federal complaints (for which no one was charged) were a bit of a stretch. Sorich broke a rule to help a soldier fighting in Iraq win a promotion, for instance. Sorich allegedly gave the soldier a top score on a job interview, even though it's alleged that Sorich never interviewed the guy. You won't find many people in Chicago who think that was such a terrible thing. And the feds have Sorich on tape urging an informant to tell the truth to investigators. Hardly the picture of a nasty criminal.
But the way U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald laid everything on the table last week, it's certainly starting to look like the feds are setting their sights on Daley himself. Sorich was the mayor's patronage chief, a longtime family friend and staunch political ally who worked for Daley's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the single most politically powerful office in the entire Daley administration. And Fitzgerald laid out a conspiracy that goes far beyond what Sorich and Slattery are alleged to have done to date. The essence of this conspiracy was summed up in the complaint against Sorich, which said he "participated in a scheme in which he and his co-schemers routinely manipulated the interview and selection process for certain city employment positions by conducting sham interviews, falsely inflating interview scores, and otherwise guaranteeing that certain pre-selected candidates who were favored by top city officials would win the employment positions, often to the exclusion of equally or more qualified candidates."
To drive home the point that this is a longstanding conspiracy perpetrated over many years by many different people, Fitzgerald claimed the investigation uncovered a "massive fraud in the hiring process going back more than a decade."
The real worry among Daley types is that if Fitzgerald manages to make a connection between the alleged hiring conspiracy and Daley or between the conspiracy and the mayor's campaign fund, then, like George Ryan's campaign fund before him, a RICO (Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organization Act) charge could quickly follow.
Originally used to break up the mafia's tightly knit organization, RICO is a devastating and amazingly effective prosecutorial tool. Once a judge allows a RICO charge, it is, by design, extremely difficult to fend off. If Fitzgerald is, indeed, targeting Daley, then RICO could be his best shot. And as we've all learned by now, Fitzgerald is certainly fearless and bullheaded enough to take that step. He doesn't care that Daley is the King of All Chicago. He's not running for anything.
And, unlike the George Ryan RICO case, a lot more people are playing ball with the feds on this Daley thing. Fitzgerald claimed that at least 30 people were actively cooperating in the current investigation, including some former Daley agency chiefs and several personnel directors. During the RICO prosecution of the Ryan campaign, almost nobody came forward to talk.
Keep in mind that after Ryan's campaign was convicted, Fitzgerald turned his sights on Ryan himself. It's still very early and a lot can happen in the coming months, but the big question now isn't whether the ever-escalating city-hall scandal forces Rich Daley out of the 2007 mayor's race, but whether it ultimately leads to his conviction.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://capitolfax.blogspot.com).