A former Chicago political leader who led white aldermen in a spectacular feud with the city's first black mayor 25 years ago pleaded guilty Monday for his role in a real estate kickback scheme just as his trial was about to get under way.
Edward R. Vrdolyak pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud "to avoid a lengthy and bitter trial," defense attorney Michael Monico said.
The 71-year-old former alderman and one-time Cook County Democratic chairman was accused of arranging a kickback for attorney Stuart Levine in the sale of a piece of property for $15 million.
Prosecutors claimed that Levine made certain that a development company would be the buyer of the property. It says Vrdolyak was to get a $1.5 million fee from the buyer and share it later with Levine.
The charges stem from the same investigation that led to the fraud conviction of political fundraiser Tony Rezko, who helped to bankroll the campaigns of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Sen. Barack Obama's state races, though not his presidential run.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said the plea showed that no one was so deeply entrenched in this corruption-plagued city's power elite as to be untouchable by federal investigators.
"The notion that there are certain people in Chicago who cannot or will not be held accountable took a serious hit today," Fitzgerald told reporters.
U.S. District Judge Milton I. Shadur set Jan. 9 for sentencing. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Prosecutors said they would ask Shadur to sentence Vrdolyak to 41 months and Monico said they he would ask the judge for a lesser sentence.
If the case had gone to trial, prosecutors were prepared to play recordings of Vrdolyak talking with Levine. The content of those recordings is under seal but Fitzgerald said they were crucial.
"We wouldn't be here with a case and a guilty plea without those recordings," he said.
Levine had been a member of the board of trustees of Finch University of Health Sciences-Chicago Medical School. As such, he arranged to make sure the developer, Smithfield Properties, would be successful in buying the property and that other potential purchasers would be turned away.
In return, $1.5 million was to be paid to Vrdolyak and that sum was to be split between Vrdolyak and Levine, according to Vrdolyak's plea agreement.
The property was a building on Chicago's Near North Side that formerly housed the Dr. William Scholl School of Podiatric Medicine.
Levine, who was expected to be the government's star witness at Vrdolyak's trial, has pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering charges involving Rezko and a plan to use political clout to squeeze various businesses for $7 million in kickbacks.
Levine testified at the Rezko trial that he had been involved in several shady deals with Vrdolyak.
Vrdolyak -- known as "Fast Eddie" -- was leader of 29 rebellious white aldermen, remnants of the once mighty Chicago Machine, who clashed daily with Mayor Harold Washington, the favorite of black voters and of anti-Machine independents.
Washington eventually was able to command a majority on the City Council, and Vrdolyak's rebellion fizzled.
Vrdolyak ran for mayor twice, lost both times, switched parties and drifted into the life of a successful deal maker.