When the Sun-Times posted its latest Wall of Shame, with mug shots of all the aldermen who’ve gone to prison since 1971, one neighborhood sunk feet and ankles below all the rest in producing shady Chicago politicians. We’re looking at you, Humboldt Park!
In the last 40 years, three aldermen representing the 31st Ward have been convicted of corruption. And the current ward committeeman is County Assessor Joe Berrios, whose hiring of family members has been called “eminently unethical and a giant conflict of interest” by the Better Government Association.
Humboldt Park’s legacy of hinkiness goes back nearly 90 years, to Thomas P. Keane, an Irish politician who served three terms in the General Assembly before he was elected alderman in 1931. Keane begat Thomas E. Keane, and when he died in 1945, willed the young man his seat on the City Council. That’s when the trouble started.
Keane was part of the cabal that dumped Mayor Martin Kennelly in 1955, and replaced him with Richard J. Daley. He went on to become Daley’s City Council floor leader. Ald. Edward Burke, who served with Keane, said Daley and Keane got along so well because they had different goals: Daley wanted power and Keane wanted money. Keane amassed millions through his real estate and law practices. In 1974, U.S. Attorney and future governor James R. Thompson convicted Keane of mail fraud, after he voted in favor of the city’s purchasing land in which he had a financial interest.
Keane continued to run the ward from prison. His wife, Adeline, was appointed to fill his seat, and he called the ward office -- collect -- after every Monday night meeting. Adeline was succeeded by Chester Kuta, who received 60 days’ work release in a tax fraud case. Why did Kuta get such a light sentence? Because he helped the government convict 31st Ward Committeeman and former state Sen. Edward Nedza of using his office to muscle his way into a share of a local flea market. Nedza went away for racketeering, conspiracy to commit extortion and filing false tax returns.
Kuta was replaced by Joseph Martinez, who was eventually sentenced to five months in prison for accepting money from ghost-payrolling jobs. The ward’s tradition of corruption had persisted through the ethnic succession from Irish to Polish to Puerto Rican.
Nedza’s successor as ward committeeman was none other than Berrios, who had gotten his start in politics as a bell-ringer for Keane, then moved on to the General Assembly and the Cook County Board of Review. Unusually for a member of his ward organization, Berrios has never been indicted, but Crain’s Chicago Business once called him “a walking conflict of interest” for his nepotism, for accepting campaign contributions from lawyers doing business with the Board of Review, and earning money as a lobbyist for the video poker industry.
Now you know where Berrios learned to act that way.
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