By Dan Haley
The news reports Thursday that another Chicago politician had been indicted by the feds brought the usual, and not unfair, reaction: "Good. They nailed another crook."
This time though, with the indictment of state Rep. LaShawn Ford, I'd ask you to step back, look more closely and consider the possibility that the U.S. Attorney's Office has, in this case, erred.
Ford, who represents much of the Austin neighborhood and a large part of south Oak Park, has been charged with 17 counts of bank fraud. A Realtor and home rehabber by profession, the feds allege that Ford used portions of the proceeds from a line of credit at the now defunct Shore Bank to pay for personal expenses, including, among other things, car payments, campaign funding, and most notoriously, to pay off a debt at an Indiana casino.
That all sounds bad. And I'm pretty sure LaShawn Ford would admit he was too casual with his recordkeeping during those years when his West Side real estate business was growing quickly, the number of rehab and resell projects was rapidly rising, and, I'll bet, cash flow got tight at times.
He was, in my estimation, a pretty typical scrappy entrepreneur who loved the work, was passionate about improving housing on the West Side where he grew up, and wasn't as focused on the details of bookkeeping, of running a business, as he should have been. Couple that with the loose money that banks were lending in that pre-crash real estate market, and I wouldn't be surprised if some bank line of credit money got co-mingled at times with personal checking accounts.
Is it right? No. Is it fairly commonplace? Banking sources I've talked to would say yes, especially if the bank wasn't monitoring accounts as closely as they should have. One source is astonished that a case this small has been brought up as a criminal matter at all.
But here are the more telling facts: The houses LaShawn Ford bought to fix up and resell were all completed. He didn't pocket the money and let the houses rot. He fixed the houses as he planned, and until the real estate market collapsed, he sold the homes and made payments on his line to the bank.
Sure, it isn't good to owe a note to a casino. But the release of that fact by the feds is intended to suggest that Ford was living large and far past his means. That doesn't seem the case. He lives in a modest home in "The Island" neighborhood of Austin. That's south of the Ike and is about the most working class housing you can find.
What seems likely is that with Shore Bank's failure, the FDIC scoured the bank's books and came across the name of an elected official. They turned this modest case over to a U.S. Attorney's Office that focuses lasers on hints of improprieties among the elected. And that led to this. Keep in mind that these charges go back to a time before Ford had even been elected to office. This isn't political wrongdoing like all the rest of the Democratic hacks who've disgraced the West Side by selling their offices and have rightly gone to prison.
So why do I care? Because for 17 years we've published the Austin Weekly News and I've seen the greed and contempt of elected officials as they plundered the public purse while Austin reeled with crime and lousy schools and decaying services. It has been appalling.
And I know, because I've been there, that LaShawn Ford is different — different and better and decent at his core. He's not a machine hack. He's a fine man, almost certainly imperfect, but a person who is in government for all the reasons that should make us proud. This man talks about real issues of violence and guns, about education and opportunity. He doesn't talk cautiously, craftily. He talks honestly and from the experience of living. He is present. He is visible. He knows real people and he listens well.
We could be jaded and say he got caught even if the wrong was small, common and mostly unintentional. So now he has to pay and we'll move on to the next petty hack the machine serves up. Or we could be hopeful, perhaps even a bit naïve, and demand that actual justice — as in service and honor — be done and that a path gets cleared for LaShawn Ford to continue his work, perhaps humbled, but still strong and true.
This is a fight worth fighting. This is a man to stand up for.