In 1996, Chicago news outlets – including “Chicago Tonight” – were consumed by the corruption probe the FBI called Operation Silver Shovel. Eighteen individuals, including six aldermen, were indicted for accepting bribes from an undercover informant named John Christopher in exchange for permitting illegal landfills among other environmental misdeeds. Their convictions signaled the end of the FBI’s operation, but it wasn’t the end of the story. In fact, it wasn’t even the beginning.
A new podcast from USA Today called “The City” takes a broad look at the events that led up to the scandal and the fallout that continues to this day.
The podcast was conceived by creator, executive producer, and host Robin Amer, who developed the idea for a podcast contest run by public radio station WNYC in 2015. Her entry won but was not picked up by the station, so Amer brought the pilot to USA Today, where she and her team developed it into 10 episodes that trace the story’s beginnings in the North Lawndale community, where the massive illegal dump site central to the story was located, to a second dump site near Lane Tech High School, and even to Houston, where similar waste dumps occurred in the 1970s.
Along the way, the show talks to community members, environmental justice activists, and even two of the aldermen convicted in the corruption probe. “It was just a lot of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting,” Amer said. “We interviewed more than 65 people, we got 30,000-50,000 pages of documents, and we didn’t get everything we wanted, we didn’t get to talk to everyone we wanted to talk to. I would’ve loved it if we could talked to Mayor Daley!”
While Chicago’s reputation for political corruption sets the scene for Season 1 of the podcast, Amer says the show’s underlying theme isn’t limited to Chicago, which will become clearer when Season 2 premieres in 2019.
“The city for Season 2 could not be more different from Chicago,” Amer said, “but the kind of issues we explore are going to feel very familiar to people who live here because at the end of the day it’s about power – who has it, who doesn’t, what happens when you try to get it, and what happens to people who don’t have power trying to get their fair share in the face of people who, as we put it in the first episode, people who hoard it.”
For Amer, it’s those people trying to get their fair share whose opinion about her work matters the most. “Our sources in North Lawndale seem to be really excited about the show and that’s the most important reception to me, because it’s about something they lived through, and I think that they feel like we did the story justice,” she said.
“They were never compensated for their homes, their medical bills, the pain and suffering. I hope that’s one thing that people will talk about, what is owed to people who went through eight years of this neighborhood environmental disaster.”
Video: A look at Operation Silver Shovel on Jan. 10, 1996 episode of “Chicago Tonight,” featuring John Callaway, Phil Ponce and guests Bill Cameron, Lewis Meyers Jr., Carol Marin – who broke the story – and Thomas Durkin.