Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward) pleaded not guilty Thursday to four charges that she took bribes in the form of home improvements including new kitchen cabinets and granite countertops from a developer and lied to FBI agents.
U.S. District Judge John Kness ordered Austin released on a personal recognizance bond of $4,500.
Austin, 72, is the third sitting member of the Chicago City Council to be charged with federal crimes. Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) has pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of corruption and Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th Ward) has pleaded not guilty to seven charges in connection with a failed Bridgeport bank.
Austin did not speak during the hearing conducted by telephone because of the COVID-19 pandemic except to answer direct questions from the judge with a yes or no.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 10.
Austin is the second-longest serving member of the City Council. She faces one count of bribery conspiracy, two counts of using interstate facilities to promote bribery and one count of lying to the FBI.
The indictment also charges Austin’s chief of staff Chester Wilson Jr., 55, with bribery conspiracy, two counts of using interstate facilities to promote bribery and one count of theft of government funds.
Wilson also pleaded not guilty.
The bulk of the charges unveiled Thursday involve the firm that began building a $49.6 million redevelopment in Austin’s Far South Side ward that includes Roseland in 2014. The firm involved was not named in the indictment.
That development was eligible for $10 million from the area’s tax increment financing district as well as money from the “aldermanic menu” fund controlled by Austin to be used for infrastructure projects in the ward, including road resurfacing, according to the indictment.
According to the indictment, Austin accepted new kitchen cabinets — worth $5,250 — in June 2017 from the developer. The next month, the firm gave Austin two “brand new” and “expensive” sump pumps and had a representative of the firm buy and install a new dehumidifier in her home, the indictment states.
Austin also asked the developer to install new “bathroom tiles in white or vein white,” in her home, according to the indictment.
In October 2017, the firm agreed to pay for a portion of a new heating and air conditioning system at Wilson’s property because, as one unnamed individual told Wilson, “You help me a lot, and I’ll help you,” according to the indictment. Another unnamed individual said, “[If] I get what I want next week, it’s worth it” to pay for the upgrades to the property owned by Wilson, according to the indictment.
Wilson and Austin also had granite countertops installed at their properties as part of the scheme, according to the indictment.
The first indication that Austin was under investigation by federal officials came on June 19, 2019, when the FBI raided her ward office, hauling away boxes and files. After the raid, Austin denied wrongdoing.
Austin lied to the FBI that very day, according to the indictment. When agents told her that the developer had installed a dehumidifier at her house, Austin replied “not to me,” according to the indictment. Austin said she got nothing from the developer “other than a cake,” according to the indictment.
“Austin and Wilson authorized the expenditure of aldermanic menu funds to benefit the construction company for infrastructure within the development, and that on multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018 Austin coordinated with the construction company owner to seek the city’s release of TIF and other payments,” the indictment states.
Wilson is also charged with theft in connection with a scheme to purchase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at a discount.
“Wilson, who was not eligible for SNAP benefits due to his city of Chicago salary, allegedly obtained a card containing SNAP benefits by paying cash to the recipient in an amount below the face value of the card,” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois.
At the time of the incidents described in the indictment, Austin was the chair of the City Council’s Budget and Government Operations Committee, charged by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel with crafting the city’s approximately $10 billion budget. She held that post from 2007 to 2019.
Austin remains the chair of the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, elected after promising to root out corruption at City Hall, has yet to ask Austin to relinquish control of the committee or resign.
“As I have said consistently since the beginning of my tenure, having a federal indictment looming — particularly over your alleged dealings as an alderman — makes your ability to deliver for residents and your effectiveness as a member of the City Council, let alone a Committee chair, very difficult,” Lightfoot said in a statement released by her office. “I reached out to Alderman Austin upon learning of the indictment, and intend on having a substantive conversation with her about her future role in the City Council.”
Appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley to represent the 34th Ward on the Far South Side after the 1994 death of her husband, Ald. Lemuel Austin, Austin won her first full term in 1996, and was reelected to a sixth term in February 2019 with 54% of the vote. Austin is second in seniority on the City Council only to Burke.