Ed Vrdolyak was one of the greats. In Chicago, that means there was always a better than even chance that he’d end up in the federal pen, even if he was the guy known for advising other guys -- the guys behind the guys who make the wheels turn -- to assume the G was listening to their conversations. Guys like Eddie are actually the ones who are most at-risk; because they think they can outsmart federal investigators, they never know when to stop.
Vrdolyak didn’t know when to stop. And so, after a long run, he got caught.
Ed Vrdolyak was sentenced today to five years' probation after pleading guilty last November to scheming to split a $1.5 million kickback on a real-estate deal with Stuart Levine, in association with Levine's position on a state board. Levine was one of the early dominos in a federal investigation that has torn through state government and is expected to culminate in March or April with the indictment of Rod Blagojevich, who is already facing charges in a criminal complaint. The indictment will be much, much worse.
Prosecutors had asked for 41 months in prison and to have Vrdolyak pay $1.5 million in restitution, but U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur didn't go for it, saying prosecutors were being "greedy."
"It would send the wrong message to impose custodial care," Shadur said.
Vrdolyak didn't hide his relief as he walked out of the Federal Courthouse today, a free -- if highly monitored -- man.
"God is great," he said, walking out the door.
Vrdolyak was but a bit player in the drama that has, through its latest twists and turns, gripped a nation. But perhaps more than anyone associated with the investigation, Vrdolyak is a case study in the Chicago operator. it's almost odd that it came to this.
Fast Eddie, as he is called, made his name as one of the two Eddies – current Ald. Ed Burke being the other – who led the bloc of 29 aldermen who obstructed nearly every move made by Harold Washington as mayor. Vrdolyak later became a Republican, a talk radio host, and finally a man who wheeled and dealed in the shadows, where the real juice is.
From bond deals to obscure state boards, middlemen like Vrdolyak figure out how to get themselves in between favors where money changes hands – often in large sums never imagined by the public.
The public – the taxpayers and voters – come to know these names only upon occasion of federal indictments; the Tony Rezkos and Ali Atas, the Michael Segals and Bill Cellinis, the names you see in John Kass columns as pals and fixers.
Vrdolyak, of course, went a different route – from public infamy to privately working the angles and then back in the public eye again when he was indicted in May 2007.
Now Vrdolyak will likely go the way of so many of his former colleagues on the Chicago City Council – to prison. His old running buddy Burke has escaped so far, but not without suspicion of his campaign fund largesse and roster of law clients who do business with the city. It’s hard to say one is more guilty of the other of pursuing personal profit at the expense of the public interest.
Vrdolyak also reminds us of just how deep the culture of corruption is here, and how far back it goes – much further back than Vrdolyak's election in 1968 as the 10th Ward Democratic committeeman. Vrdolyak is just one in a long line of swindlers who have defined politics as usual in Chicago.
At this juncture, Vrdolyak is simply an Old Bull whose number came up long after most of his damage was done, not unlike mob leaders who only seem to see the inside of the courtroom when they are little but a memory.
But since he just got probation, can we really say goodbye to Fast Eddie?