Chicago Transit Authority chairman once publicly vouched for murderous gang chief

This is a story about the intersection of crime and politics in Chicago. The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that the Better Government Association - a small but important reform organization in Chicago - has discovered that Mayor Emanuel's appointed Chairman of the CTA lobbied in the 1990's for the early release from prison of one of the most notorious gangsters in Chicago at that time.

In 1993, Peterson was the chief of staff to then-Ald. Allan Streeter (17th), and Gangster Disciples boss Larry Hoover Sr. was in a Downstate Illinois prison, serving a 150- to 200-year sentence for murdering a man suspected of stealing drugs from the gang.

Hoover had already served 20 years of his term and was up for a crucial hearing in front of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, the government agency that has the power to grant or deny parole.

The BGA recently obtained a letter - on City Council letterhead and bearing the names of Peterson and Streeter - that asks the chairman of the prisoner review board for Hoover's release on parole and that portrays Hoover in glowing terms.

Peterson, who is in the process of being reappointed to the CTA board by Emanuel, declined an interview request. But in a statement, he denied writing or even signing the letter.

The letter, provided by the review board, states: "I am writing to you as a concerned citizen to support the release of Mr. Larry Hoover who has demonstrated a sincere desire and effort in working for the improvement of the African American Community."

"For example, Mr. Hoover was one of the first to sign the Peace Treaty to stop the killings in the African American Community, which has been very successful. Also Mr. Hoover has been very instrumental in working for the capture of the Chatham Community Rapist and working to assist in the apprehension of a serial killer in the Chatham area."

"I strongly urge you as Chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to use your legal and executive powers to work for the release of this servant of the community."

The review board turned down parole for Hoover.

In response to a BGA inquiry, Peterson released a brief statement through a CTA spokesman in which he denied authoring the letter -- or even knowing of its existence until now, even though Streeter's push for Hoover's parole was widely reported in the mid-1990s, just before Streeter himself ended up in prison as part of an unrelated bribery scandal.

"Mr. Peterson had nothing to do with the letter in question," according to the CTA statement. "He neither wrote the letter nor was aware of its existence. The signature on the letter is not Mr. Peterson's -- it was a facsimile apparently placed there by a staff member at the time. Chairman Peterson has never met and does not know Mr. Hoover, and had no involvement with the subject addressed in the letter."

That's his story and he's sticking with it.

Actually, this is SOP for any Chicago pol caught dead to rights - deny, deny, deny. But it does raise an interesting question; why would an alderman and his chief of staff intervene on behalf of a convicted murderer who headed a notorious, drug dealing gang?

In some Chicago neighborhoods, gangs may be unpopular, but the reality is they employ as many or more people than legitimate businesses. They also indirectly protect residents from the ravages of rival gangs who may be of a different race or ethnic make up.

In Chicago, and many big cities, the police are feared far more than gang members, who, after all, are residents' neighbors and the children of neighbors. It is a strange dynamic because if you ask them, almost all residents of a gang-infested neighborhood would tell you they hate the gangs and want them out. The flip side is that, as Peterson mentioned, gangs supply a modicum of security against independent criminals - muggers, rapists, etc. You can't operate as  a criminal in gang territory without cutting them in, or more likely, being threatened with death.

Gangs are hard to fight because they offer employment, status, and a sense of belonging in poverty stricken communities that lack the social cohesion that more prosperous neighborhoods enjoy. It would be wrong to say they are allied with the Chicago political machine. But that doesn't mean that politicians aren't aware of their usefulness and therefore, doing them a favor by advocating for the parole of an important leader might benefit an individual alderman.

Peterson may not have thought it a big deal to vouch for a gang leader when he was a chief of staff to an alderman. But as Chairman of the CTA, his advocacy takes on an entirely different character.

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