BY MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist
The lawyer who defended city patronage chief Robert Sorich on federal fraud charges says he faults Mayor Daley and the corporation counsel's office for the hiring procedures that sent his client to prison, which isn't to suggest he thinks they did anything wrong.
Meanwhile, the lawyer who prosecuted Sorich said he thinks the old-style Democratic Machine patronage system in effect in Chicago in the 1960s and '70s -- before the Shakman court decrees -- was "so much more honest" than Daley's underground patronage operation, which isn't to suggest he'd turn back the clock.
These were among the insights offered during a panel discussion Friday on the future of patronage hiring in light of Sorich's recently upheld conviction.
'He had a job to do'
The Better Government Association hosted the event -- bringing together Thomas Anthony Durkin, Sorich's lawyer, with Patrick Collins, the Sorich prosecutor -- for a rare outside-the-courtroom exchange, made possible by the fact that Collins is now in private practice and mostly free to speak his mind.
Rounding out the panel were Michael Shakman himself and former Chicago alderman-turned-radio host Cliff Kelley, but Durkin and Collins were the draw.
What actually convinced me to attend was word that former City Clerk James Laski was planning to be there, too, possibly in hopes of confronting Collins, the guy who sent him to prison for his role in the Hired Truck scandal.
Sure enough, Laski was hanging around the railing at the Harold Washington Library when we arrived and confirmed he wanted to see Collins.
Later, before the session started, heads turned as Laski made his way to the head table for his encounter with the guy who put him away.
Fireworks? No, entirely cordial.
"He had a job to do. It's as simple as that," Laski explained on the way back to his seat.
"And he said he read the book. He liked the book," Laski added, referring to his self-published tell-all.
System 'poorly thought out'
But back to the main event, much of it a rehash with Collins arguing for the umpteenth time that the prosecution of Sorich and three co-workers wasn't about patronage but rather about the fraudulent hiring practices that were used to enable a sub rosa patronage system.
Durkin reiterated for the umpteenth time his contention that prosecutors trying to nail Daley improperly swept up Sorich in an overreaching interpretation of federal fraud laws -- an argument rejected in April by a federal appeals court.
But they also set aside the usual script.
"There are very valid reasons the mayor has stated why he wanted to run the hiring out of the intergovernmental affairs office," Durkin offered at one point, then stopped himself when he remembered Daley's version of events was never made public during the trial.
"There's a document," he continued, apparently referring to a sealed account of the mayor's 2005 interview by federal investigators. "I've read it. I think there are some pretty valid reasons there."
"Do I condone the way they did this? No. I think it was improperly set up. I think it was poorly drafted and poorly thought out," Durkin said.
"This is what I do fault the mayor's office on. They could have set it up -- the way they did it -- correctly, and they didn't, and they should be faulted for that," he said. "But should Robert Sorich be in jail for 43 months? That's preposterous."
Earlier, he had observed: "I don't think Daley's motives in that were purely negative," another reference to the decision to allow Intergovernmental Affairs to oversee hiring and promotions, which we now know led to the system being rigged.
How it used to be
Collins said the hiring fraud investigation grew out of the Hired Truck scandal, in particular the prosecution of former Water Department boss Donald Tomczak.
Collins said he vividly recalled his first meeting with the once-powerful political operative, after Tomczak had decided to "flip" and become a cooperating witness.
"I gave him my little speech about telling the truth and how important it is. He says, 'Everything in the indictment is true. I did it all,' " Collins recounted.
And there are other things you don't know, Tomczak continued, proceeding to clue in investigators about how hiring and promotions were rigged.
Collins later observed that the patronage system in effect before the Shakman restrictions, when a letter from a sponsoring ward committeeman was routinely placed in a job applicant's city personnel file, was "so much more honest."
"There's some honesty in that, frankly, that was completely absent in this fraud system that was built, perpetuated and thrived for years," Collins said.
In a way, Durkin and Collins were saying the same thing. If the mayor had been aboveboard, his people wouldn't be in jail.