When a news organization breaks a story about public officials doing funny things with taxpayer money (see Peter Sachs' fantastic scoop yesterday), one of the most interesting questions that inevitably arises is: Will someone go to jail?
Because funny business is one thing, but packing Emil Jones or Todd Stroger off to Club Fed is quite another.
Peter's story disclosed that WYCC, the public television station operated by the City Colleges of Chicago, used its budget to produce free videos of powerful politicians and friends of Chancellor Wayne Watson.
The videos, which were never aired, showcased golf events, a fundraiser and a "State Senate California Trip" in connection with Jones, who was the state senate president at the time, Stroger, then an alderman, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, documents say.
Peter's on vacation, and I'm filling his shoes as the story progresses. So I put the criminal question to Joel R. Levin, who spent 28 years as a federal prosecutor in San Francisco, Milwaukee and Chicago. He ended his government service as chief of financial fraud unit in the United States Attorney's Office here in Chicago, and is now an attorney at Perkins Coie.
Levin, who spoke with the caveat that he doesn't have detailed knowledge of the facts in this case, says allegations like those against Watson, Stroger and Jones, could yield a federal prosecution.
"It's certainly conceivably something they could pursue," he says.
To make a case against the television troika, prosecutors would have to demonstrate a pattern of using public money for purposes other than which it was intended.
It's known as the "honest service" provision of federal law, and its been used recently in Illinois to snare heavy hitters ranging from Robert Sorich to Rod Blagojevich.
Whether federal officials see the case as a stretch, or as something to jump on immediately, depends on how pervasive the use of station resources for political videos was.
"If there's a pattern, it's much more likely to generate some interest," says Levin. "If it's an isolated instance, you could say it's unlikely."
An internal City Colleges e-mail obtained by the Daily News says WYCC produced 15 such programs between 2002 and 2006.
Another issue, says Levin, is the value of the work done by WYCC employees on pet projects of Stroger and Jones.
"You'd need to put some value on it to prove a meaningful diversion of resources," he says. "It would only be interesting to federal prosecutors if it's a meaningful amount -- if it's part of a pattern and practice that went on for awhile, as opposed to just a few hours of soomeone doing something weren't supposed to."
The feds could also look into whether the colleges fraudulently claimed they had met spending requirements and political activity prohibitions when they filed reports with the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provided WYCC with $865,000 in grants last year.
Levin's comments were echoed by a number of former federal prosecutors I spoke with yesterday. Hopefully we'll hear more from them this afternoon.
Over the next few days, we'll be working to answer questions about how much WYCC spent on the political videos, whether the station reported its activities truthfully, and whether Jones and Stroger were required to disclose the videos as gifts on their campaign or personal ethics disclosures.
I've taken a look at Jones' personal ethics disclosures for the time in question, and he claims no gifts.
What do you think? Will the feds take a look? And what other questions should we be asking as we pursue this developing story?
Leave a comment here, or drop me a line: geoff at chitowndailynews dot org, or 773-362-5002, ext. 10.