Hush Money?

12.02.15 6:00 AM ET

Inside Rahm Emanuel’s Vote to Silence Laquan McDonald’s Family

How the vote to pay $5 million to the slain teen’s family—in exchange for not releasing the video of his death—may have helped the mayor get re-elected.

The day the Chicago City Council approved a $5 million settlement with the family of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was also the day a linen sheet from Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed was put on display in the chamber.

“You’ll note, ladies and gentlemen, that bed sheet is stained with the blood of the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln,” Alderman Edward Burke told his fellow council members.  

Other artifacts brought to the council from the Chicago History Museum to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death included two coins.

“Silver half-dollar coins which were placed on Abraham Lincoln’s eyes following his death on that fateful morning,” Burke reported.

Burke spoke for more than five minutes about Lincoln, noting that the great man had secured the presidential nomination at the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago. The murdered president had returned to Chicago by funeral train and lay in state.

“Here on this very ground,” Burke said. “Where Lincoln's remains were venerated.”

Burke then read aloud a proclamation that had been issued by the mayor.

“I, Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of the City of Chicago, do proclaim April 15, 2015 to be Abraham Lincoln Day.”

This City Council session on the newly named Abraham Lincoln Day proceeded to other business, such as honoring an injured police officer and approving the donation of a used ambulance to the city of Jutiapa in Honduras.

Burke, who was briefly a Chicago cop and who wrote a book on Chicago cops killed in the line of duty—and who was now chairman of the council’s committee on finance—then introduced measures that would authorize the city’s Corporation Counsel to enter into three unrelated settlement agreements.

He described the first one only by a partial name and the file number.

“Estate of McDonald, the case 14C2041,” Burke said.

That should have been enough to rouse comment and debate by the whole council.

But the entire legislative process—Burke’s introduction of the measure, his call for a vote, its passage unopposed and the bang of the gavel wielded by Emanuel marking the official approval—took just 36 seconds.

“Hearing no objection, so ordered.” Emanuel intoned.

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One objection that might well have been heard would have come from Honest Abe had he been able.

Lincoln almost certainly would have told the council that the blood to think about was not that which stained a bedsheet 150 years before but that which had pooled in the middle of Pulaski Road seven months before.

Lincoln also more than likely would have told them that what demanded their attention was not the pair of half-dollars that lay on his dead eyes but millions of dollars that at least smacked of hush money.

Despite the absence of any manifest drama surrounding the vote, all the council members knew well that the Estate of McDonald referred to 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who had been fatally shot by a police officer on Oct. 20, 2014.

And Case 14C2041 was a $5 million settlement to head off a lawsuit that would hinge on a damning dashcam recording. The video shows the cop firing 16 times in some 15 seconds when McDonald was moving away, not toward him, as a police union spokesman had maintained in the aftermath of the shooting.

The killing had come three months after Eric Garner died as the result of a cop’s chokehold in Staten Island and two months after Michael Brown was shot to death by a cop in Ferguson. But McDonald had been holding a knife. And the cop was said to have fired out of fear for his life.

Had that video been made public and proven otherwise, it unquestionably would have had an effect on the already surprisingly tough re-election fight faced by the incumbent mayor, Emanuel.

Passions were already running high when grand juries declined to indict the cops in the Eric Garner and the Michael Brown cases.

Cries of “I can’t breathe!” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” would have been joined by “16 shots!”

Emanuel could have ended up with Ferguson times 50.

As it was, Emanuel failed to win a majority in the Feb. 24 election. He became the first mayor to face a run-off since the city instituted nonpartisan voting nearly a quarter-century ago.

Perhaps it was only a coincidence that the lawyers for the McDonald family contacted the city three days later, seeking a settlement before they actually filed a lawsuit in federal court. The city says the McDonald family initially sought $16 million.

A $5 million deal was in the works on April 7, when Emanuel won the run-off. The settlement was presented to the City Council’s committee on finance six days later, on April 13. The city’s corporation counsel, Steve Patton, testified in favor of the deal, which declared that “the City of Chicago denies allegations of wrongdoing and further denies any liability,” while allowing there is “potential evidence” that could result in criminal charges, presumably against the cop. There was a standard confidentiality clause, such as is often a defendant’s primary goal in settling a civil case.

The Finance Committee immediately approved the settlement agreement.

Afterward, Patton told reporters that the dashcam recording had been a major factor in the city’s decision to settle. Patton suggested that the video called into doubt the cop’s claim that he had fired to save himself. Patton noted that none of the other five cops at the scene fired at all.

Patton also reported that the U.S. Attorney’s office had joined the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) in investigating the shooting. The IPRA, not the police, investigate all cop-involved shootings and serious allegations of cop misconduct in Chicago.

On April 14, a week after the run-off and coincidentally the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, the chairman of the finance committee, Burke, presented the McDonald settlement along with two unrelated settlements before the full council for a vote.

The matter was treated as if it were as routine as a subsequent matter involving a car wash. There was no actual mention of the $5 million that some critics would describe as hush money.

There remained the question of the dashcam video. The McDonald family’s lawyers said the confidentiality agreement precluded them from releasing it. The city refused to release it on the grounds that there was an ongoing criminal investigation.

A better description might have been a going-on-and-on-and-on investigation.

And it might still be going on had a reporter not filed a lawsuit to have the video made public. The city’s lawyer—who reports to Emanuel—fought the reporter hard. A judge ruled in the reporter’s favor.

Shortly before the video was made public, the state’s attorney's office announced that the cop in question, Jason Van Dyke, was being charged with first-degree murder.

The resulting protests interrupted some Black Friday shopping, but they were nothing like what might have come had the video reached public attention back when tempers were higher, which was also before Emanuel won another term.

Unlike in the Garner and Brown cases, the powers-that-be had produced a murder charge against the cop, conveniently timed just before the date set by the court for the video’s release.

But the arrest had come more than a year after the killing and the timing made more than a few people wonder if the cop had only been arrested to dampen the outrage over what the dashcam so clearly showed.

And because that unmistakable proof had been available from the start, the long delay in acting upon it was all the more difficult to see. Cries of “16 shots” were joined by “400 days!”

Most people blamed the police, even though there was little the department could do early on other than strip the cop of his police powers, which it immediately did.

The IPRA investigators are civilians, as is their boss, Chief Administrator Scott Ando, who was appointed by the mayor.

In the McDonald case, the team of IPRA, state and federal investigators does not report to the Chicago Police Department. And the team certainly did not set the pace of the probe to satisfy the cop brass.

Even so, the finding is almost never against the officer.

By one count, IPRA has investigated some 400 police-involved shootings since 2007 and, until this most recent case, had found only one to be unjustified.

That is a statistic that Emmanuel either knew or at least should have known before the release of the McDonald video caused him to act as if there were a sudden urgency.

Almost everything that Emanuel is now saying needs immediate attention are long-term problems he had failed to address. 

At a press conference on Tuesday, Emanuel began by declaring, “I take responsibility.” He then proceeded to announce that he had formally asked for the resignation of Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

“Now is the time for fresh eyes and new leadership,” Emanuel said.

McCarthy later offered his own analysis to The Daily Beast.

“We have civilian oversight for discipline, civilian investigators for police shootings and an investigation by the U.S. Attorney, but I'm accountable for the investigation and timing,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy discerned a lesson.

“Accountability without authority never works,” he said.

The person with authority in this instance was and is Emanuel.

He ignored one question that was shouted out at his Tuesday press conference. It is a question that a leader who truly does take responsibility in the way of Honest Abe would feel compelled to consider.

Runaway Rahm will find the question harder to duck if it turns out that the $5 million settlement voted upon on Abraham Lincoln Day in any way involved hush money and an effort to make an ongoing investigation go on and on and on.

“What about the call for your resignation?”