CHICAGO – The grizzled Chicago Democrat has compared himself to a virile hog, likened a then-chief prosecutor to a Nazi and bragged about directing government investigators to kiss his posterior.
William Beavers’ you-can’t-touch-me bravado will be put to the test as the former police officer-turned-politician beats a path – well-worn in Illinois – to a federal courthouse for testimony at his tax-evasion trial this week.
The combative Cook County commissioner stands accused of diverting more than $225,000 from campaign coffers to feed a casino-gambling habit and for other personal use without reporting it. Jury selection began Monday, and opening statements are expected later this week.
With his booming voice and devil-may-care persona, the 77-year-old Beavers is seen by many as an artifact of old-school Chicago politics.
“He’s of a generation that felt, if you win election, the seat isn’t in the public trust – it’s yours as a spoil of war,” said David Morrison, of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “You now have license to look out for yourself and your family.”
Beavers also is accused of failing to declare that he took more than $68,000 in campaign money and put it in a city fund to double the monthly pension he got for his years as an alderman to more than $6,000.
He pleaded not guilty to four tax-related counts, each of which carries a maximum three-year prison term.
There’s a bit of deja vu at Beavers’ trial. It’s in the same courtroom as that of disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The judge is the same, as are many of the defense attorneys and some of the prosecutors.
Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence on multiple corruption convictions, including charges that he tried to sell President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat.
One question that Beavers’ cases raises, says Tom Gradel, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is whether Chicago politics is no longer as corrupt as it was in his heyday.
“Beavers wasn’t bashful about talking about his wheeling and dealing,” he said. “But I don’t see too much difference in the new school. Now, it’s about campaign contributions, whereas old school may have relied on kickback from employees.”
Politicians, he said, operate “on the borders between what’s acceptable and criminal” and are good at adapting.
“Once that line is changed by law enforcement, they move into different grayer areas – away from the clearly criminal areas,” he said.
Other much-younger Illinois politicians have recently found themselves in legal trouble. Last month, 47-year-old Jesse Jackson Jr., once viewed hopefully as a new-age politician, resigned from Congress amid an investigation of his campaign finances.
One of Beavers’ attorneys is Sam Adam Jr., who was Blagojevich’s lead lawyer at the Democrat governor’s first corruption trial. That trial ended with the jury deadlocked on all but one charge, leading to a second decisive trial.
Adam’s penchant for showmanship and delighting in verbal brawls meshes well with Beavers’ public image.
Beavers’ most famous rhetorical flourish came several years ago when he offered a favorable estimation of his own influence by calling himself “a hog with big nuts.”
He’s hardly proven a wilting flower since his February indictment.
Within minutes of entering a not guilty plea, he walked down to the lobby of Chicago’s federal courthouse and accused then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of using “Gestapo-type tactics” to win convictions. Fitzgerald, who was responsible for the indictment of Blagojevich and dozens of other Illinois politicians, retired over the summer to enter private practice.
Beavers has said he was indicted in an act of retribution by investigators for refusing to wear a wire against another county commissioner, John Daley, the brother of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. U.S. District Judge James Zagel barred defense attorneys from broaching that allegation at the trial.
Zagel did say they could argue Beavers eventually paid back the money in question and amended his returns after he learned he was under investigation. However, Zagel said that claim would only be admissible if it came from Beavers’ mouth on the witness stand.
As he left court Monday, Beavers told reporters he would testify. “No question about it,” he said.
Gradel, for one, doesn’t think Beavers’ gushing confidence will play well with jurors.
“He’s glib and still may think the world is as accepting as it was 30 or 40 years ago of this behavior,” he said. “The public isn’t as intolerable as I’d like them to be. But they aren’t as tolerable as they were.”