Editorial: Grand jury files could get to bottom of clout
Published March 2, 2016
Clout is a Chicago word that is often misunderstood.
It does not mean you have political power. It means you know somebody who has political power — power you can tap to bend the rules.
As the legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko once wrote, the best way to explain clout is through examples of how it might be used in conversation:
“Nah, I don’t need a building permit — I got clout in City Hall.”
“Lady, just tell your kid not to spit on the floor during trial and he’ll get probation. I talked to my clout and he talked to the judge.”
Dan K. Webb, the former U.S. attorney who moves in Chicago’s most exclusive legal and political circles, undoubtedly understands this distinction — some people have clout while others are the clout. Webb is not new to town.
Why then did Webb conduct an investigation into a wrongful death case that reeked of clout yet climb only so high up the ladder of Chicago’s power structure?
Why did Webb finally press criminal charges against a man who enjoyed great clout — a mayor’s nephew — but not do all he could to learn how that clout may have worked, at the highest levels, to shield the nephew from being charged for more than eight years?
As a special prosecutor in 2012, Webb led a grand jury to charge Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko with involuntary manslaughter in the 2004 death of 21-year-old David Koschman. Vanecko threw the punch that led to Koschman’s death. In his final report, Webb also singled out for shame a handful of mid-level cops who had slow-walked or bumbled two previous investigations.
But Webb treated Richard M. Daley, Vanecko’s uncle, with kid gloves. Though Daley was mayor at the time Vanecko killed Koschman — and during the subsequent years of a possible cover-up — he was never forced to testify before Webb’s grand jury. Nor were eight other Daley relatives who found themselves in the middle of this case.
Instead, interview transcripts and “voluntary sworn statements” that Daley and his family gave Webb were read to the grand jury. And the contents of those interviews and statements have never been made public, which is indefensible.
We believe the entire grand jury record, totaling thousands of pages of evidence, should be released to the public, including the statements from Daley and his relatives. The people of Chicago have a right to know, as best can be determined, what exactly a sitting mayor said and did when the police — who ultimately answer to him — were investigating his sister’s son for homicide.
All excuses for keeping the records secret no longer hold water. No criminal or civil cases and no disciplinary actions would be compromised. Vanecko has served his time and is on probation. Four police officers have retired to avoid punishment and two others are fighting suspensions. A civil suit brought by Koschman’s mother was settled months ago.
Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Toomin has the authority to unseal the records, and we urge him to do so immediately.
Judge Toomin, who appointed Webb as special prosecutor in the first place, was convinced that something smelled in the way the police and county prosecutors had failed to charge Vanecko for years.
“Quite simply, we have a dead body,” Toomin said at the time. “This is not a whodunnit. We know who done it. There’s a known offender and yet no charges.”
Toomin smelled clout. That would be our guess. We’re smelling it still.