"Fast Eddie" is not going to jail.
As columnist Dan Brown wrote in Friday's Sun-Times, "If you didn't know the federal judiciary in Chicago was considered to be on the square, if you didn't know that Judge Milton Shadur had built a reputation of integrity over three decades on the bench, if you didn't know both those things, then you might suspect the fix was in Thursday for the benefit of Edward R. Vrdolyak."
For a colorful period of Chicago's history, Vrdolyak was viewed by many as the malevolent overlord of the City Council. He was the iron fisted leader of the infamous "Vrdolyak 29", the mostly white bloc of aldermen who battled and blocked the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington, and his reform allies at every turn.
"I think Harold thought he was kind of a delightful villain," said Cook County Clerk David Orr, who during the Council Wars era, was part of the Washington bloc in the City Council.
"He was a strong leader among many sheep," Orr said of Vrdolyak's rule over his majority group of aldermen. "And in a situation with so many sheep, that just made him strong."
Vrdolyak first joined the Chicago City Council from the gritty 10th ward in 1971. And while he is best known for leading the opposition against Harold Washington, Vrdolyak had earned his stripes with a rebellion against Mayor Richard J. Daley during his first years in office. He was branded as part of a "cabal of evil men" by Jane Byrne during her run for Mayor in 1979. But after her victory, Byrne embraced Vrdolyak, making him her floor leader and chief ally in the City Council. In 1982, he became Chairman of the powerful Cook County Democratic Central Committee, overthrowing longtime chief George Dunne.
He was nicknamed, "Fast Eddie", for his slick, dealmaking expertise. He could be charming to some, biting to others. He demanded loyalty and rewarded it with the perks and privileges of his position.
"It's always about power, and Vrdolyak wanted the power," said Paul Green, the Roosevelt University political scientist who has studied Illinois and Chicago politics for decades. "Ed Vrdolyak was a dominant player in the City of Chicago."
Green notes that while Vrdolyak was known for his guile and ruthlessness, being ruthless in the Chicago City Council is often seen as a necessary path to power. "You have to be (ruthless), in this town."
After Harold Washington's election in 1983, Vrdolyak consolidated his power with 28 other aldermen. "During the Washington era, he took over the City Council," said Green. "Mr. Vrdolyak, from April of '83 to July of '86 basically was co-mayor of the City of Chicago!"
It was a turbulent time in politics. Reporters were afraid not to be at City Hall, because of the stormy antics of Vrdolyak and his colleagues. The 29 aldermen could vote down any mayoral appointment, or budget appropriation. But in 1986, ward boundaries were redrawn. Four of Vrdolyak's allies were defeated by pro-Washington candidates. Several other "organization" aldermen joined Washington, giving him a numerical majority. In 1987 Vrdolyak resigned as Party chairman and ran for Mayor. But Washington won a resounding victory, with 53% of the vote.
At one point, he even switched parties, becoming a Republican. He ran as GOP candidate for Clerk of the Circuit Court in 1988, but lost to Democrat Aurelia Pucinski, who was backed by Washington. Vrdolyak ran again for Mayor in 1989. But this time he was defeated by Democrat Richard Daley, garnering only 4% of the vote.
"That was the end of Ed Vrdolyak as an elected official," said former Sun-Times political editor James Merriner. But he notes the turbulent times certainly took their toll on both sides of the aisle at City Hall.
"It isn't black and white, heroes and villains. Let's remember, some of those so-called 'reformers' went to prison themselves," Merriner said.
Out of politics for good, Vrdolyak returned to his law practice and earned millions. He hosted talk shows on WLS and WJJD radio, and he was a key and controversial legal and political advisor to Betty Loren-Maltese, who was herself convicted on corruption charges in 2002.
In many ways, Vrdolyak was a throwback to another time in Chicago politics, to the days of Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John Coughlin. But his legal undoing came in an event un-related to his time at City Hall, a bribery and mail fraud conviction, centering on a piece of property that was sold by the Chicago Medical School. Vrdolyak was accused in a scheme to steer the sale of the property to a developer, in exchange for a $1.5 million dollar kickback. He pled guilty to a reduced charge, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. But Federal Judge Milton Shadur rejected prosecutors' request for a stiff penalty of 41 months in prison, sentencing Vrdolyak to only 5 years probation, and a $50,000 fine. He was also ordered to perform 2500 hours of community service.
For years, it had been a parlor game for reporters and politicians alike: would the law ever catch up with Ed Vrdolyak? "Let's put it this way," said Orr. "Vrdolyak was lucky he got away with so much, for so long." But in the end, Vrdolyak walked out of the Dirksen Federal Building on Thursday, a free man, who will never see the inside of a prison, at least not now.
"Fast Eddie," once again.
Vrdolyak was fined $50,000 and placed on five years' probation Thursday for scheming to get a $1.5 million payoff in a real estate deal -- a sentence that came as a sharp blow to federal prosecutors.
Vrdolyak, 71, remained solemn faced throughout the proceeding but broke a slight smile when federal Judge Milton I. Shadur told him he could appeal if he were dissatisfied with his sentence. Prosecutors had asked a 41-month prison sentence.
But Shadur said prison was unwarranted in part because Vrdolyak's actions had not cost anyone the loss of money --something prosecutors strongly disagreed with.
"It would be the wrong message under all the circumstances here to impose a custodial sentence," Shadur said, following hours in which he wrangled with prosecutors over whether Vrdolyak caused any loss of money or was an "insider."