The chief executives of more than 200 cities were converging on Chicago for this weekend's annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, greeted by blooming flowers, a pristine lake dotted by sailboats and a man named recently by Time magazine as one of the very best mayors in America.
But the visitors come at the end of yet another tough week for Mayor Richard Daley as scandal, wrongdoing and multiple investigations simmer just behind Chicago's sparkling facade.
While the mayors discussed homeland security and making cities competitive Friday at the Chicago Hilton and Towers Hotel, a former Transportation Department foreman pleaded guilty in federal court to diverting as many as 100 truckloads of city asphalt valued at up to $60,000 to private contractors.
The day before, two figures in the Hired Truck Program scandal were in court.
Martin McDonagh, a trucking company owner, was sentenced after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about paying off two city employees to obtain business.
In another courtroom, Joseph Ignoffo admitted that he paid at least $23,000 in cash, gift certificates and campaign contributions to officials in four city departments to keep his trucks running. Some of the money wound up in the campaign fund of Cook County Commissioner John Daley, the mayor's brother, authorities said.
McDonagh and Ignoffo are among 27 charged in connection with the Hired Truck probe, an investigation that promises to produce even more defendants.
There was more bad news Friday, when the city fired John Quinn, a top Zoning Department official, because he refused to answer questions about the issuance of a building permit for a condominium in a zone reserved for manufacturing, officials said. Two senior Buildings Department officials had resigned after facing questions on their involvement in the matter.
Blocks away from City Hall, however, Daley reveled in a bubble where no one knew or cared much about his recent problems. To help make sure it would stay that way, Daley's press handlers warned reporters that only questions about the gathering were allowed at a news conference with other mayors.
The focus for many visiting civic leaders was on how best to emulate Daley's Chicago.
A Chicago police camera was proudly displayed outside a meeting room, its blue lights flashing and a uniformed officer standing next to it.
Daley told mayors that he had installed the cameras, over the objections of some who saw them as intrusive, because "the street, the alley, the sidewalk belong to the public."
"We lead the way," Daley said. "We know we have a good Police Department."
The decline in violent crime in Chicago under Daley is "just phenomenal," said Beverly O'Neill, mayor of Long Beach, Calif., and vice president of the conference.
Daley, who once headed the mayors group, is admired by his peers across the country, said Harvey Johnson Jr., mayor of Jackson, Miss. Johnson said his city will follow Chicago's lead with police surveillance cameras.
"I'd like Millennium Park plopped down right in the middle of my downtown," said the conference president, Mayor Donald L. Plusquellic of Akron.
"He is viewed as very creative, a very committed leader of this community," said William Horne, city manager of Clearwater, Fla. "We look to follow Chicago's path in many areas where they have decided to be bold."
Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said visiting mayors can credit Daley, but they should also consider the cost of corruption that the administration is struggling to deal with.
"I suppose I would tell them to enjoy our city because it truly is beautiful and it truly has been transformed," she said. "But I would tell them they need to look beyond the wrought iron and the flowers and the parks ... the `city that works' isn't working so well right now."
In a meeting with the Tribune's editorial board Friday, Rev. Jesse Jackson declined to comment on whether his son, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), will run against Daley in 2007, but he said the mayor is "hemorrhaging" as a result of the scandals.
Is Daley vulnerable to a challenge?
"That's obvious," Jackson said.
Some of the alleged wrongdoing has hit Daley close to home. On June 3, city officials announced that an internal investigation had uncovered a scheme in which nine employees at the Water Management Department allegedly were "punched in" for work by others, getting paid for time they didn't work. One of them, officials said, was John Briatta, a $94,800-a-year chief equipment dispatcher who is the brother-in-law of John Daley and a personal acquaintance of the mayor.
As the out-of-town mayors were starting to pack their bags for Chicago Wednesday, federal investigators were arresting veteran Water Management worker George Prado, accused of heading the Chicago distribution cell of a Colombian heroin-trafficking ring.
Two other city employees were also charged with heroin trafficking--often during hours when they were supposed to be at work, officials said.
Among those under indictment in Hired Truck are Donald Tomczak, head of a pro-Daley political army who was installed by the mayor as first deputy commissioner in Water Management. Prosecutors say Tomczak solicited at least $500,000 in cash, campaign contributions and gifts over a decade in return for city trucking business.
Angelo Torres, who had ties to the pro-Daley Hispanic Democratic Organization, pleaded guilty in March to shaking down at least 10 trucking companies for kickbacks while he headed the Hired Truck Program.
Plusquellic, the conference president, said he knew little of Daley's problems but defended him nevertheless.
"Mayors who've been around know that those things happen in a city, and there's no way that you can prevent some of those things," he said.
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Mayor Richard Daley is hosting the chief executives of more than 200 cities for the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors amid several city government scandals.
HIRED TRUCK PROGRAM
Issue: Bribe money given to city workers in exchange for
contracts in the city`s $38 million Hired Truck Program allegedly
made its way into the campaign funds of Daley and other officials, federal authorities said last month. Twelve defendants have been convicted and 27 charged in the probe that encompasses the Water Management Department and other city departments.
City's reaction: Daley has hired former Police Officer Thomas Byrne to clean up Transportation Department operations.
Issue: The mayor was embarrassed by allegations that white, politically connected men were benefiting by using women and minorities as fronts in order to qualify for the city`s minority setaside program. In May, business owner James Duff was sentenced to nearly 10 years in federal prison for a racketeering scheme in connection with the program.
City's reaction: The city now requires that firms disclose more information about their companies.
DEPARTMENT OF WATER MANAGEMENT
Issue: The department this month was hit by a timesheet scandal in which nine workers were accused of having someone else "punch in" for them. The nine workers face dismissal and the commissioner was fired.
Issue: Two department workers this week were accused of involvement in a heroin-trafficking ring, often while on city time.
PATRONAGE HIRING INVESTIGATION
Issue: In April federal agents searched city offices to investigate allegations of extra pay and promotions given in return for political work.
City's reaction: The Daley administration last month announced an overhaul of its hiring practices.
Issue: Two senior officials have resigned amid a city investigation involving a building permit. A top Zoning Department official was fired Friday because he refused to answer questions on the issue, officials said.
Source: Tribune reports