One witness at a time, feds turning up heat

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With her nice black suit and pearls at her throat, Andrea Coutretsis Prokos, political girlfriend and alleged perjurer, was properly dressed for federal court.

But she might as well have worn a pair of those sandwich signs, front and back, because she's a walking billboard, a message to witnesses in other ongoing federal investigations.Coutretsis (that's the name she's using now) faces prison time for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury about destroying documents and other evidence for her lover, Scott Fawell, the convicted political fixer of former Gov. George Ryan.

In court this week, she was a demure package, eyes meek and voice tiny, pleading not guilty.

But she's also a prop, a warning from U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald to all witnesses, from political corruption probes to the stunning FBI investigation of a string of 19 unsolved murders by the Chicago Outfit.

Here's Fitzgerald's message: Visit a grand jury and play word games, get cute and try to protect your friends, and you'll get slapped with federal indictments. Your friends just might roll over on you, if they're convicted.

Then, you can wear other signs, like a goofy jester's hat and curly tipped shoes with bells, and wiggle your feet to ring them, mockingly, while sitting on your bunk in federal prison.

"We must get the truth from witnesses," Fitzgerald told reporters when the Coutretsis indictments were announced. "And if we have evidence that they're lying, we'll prosecute."

I asked several prominent criminal lawyers about the indictments and what Coutretsis means to other witnesses.

"The message is this," said defense lawyer Joseph Lopez, "Mr. Fawell, if you don't give us the former governor, we'll take your girlfriend."

Other lawyers took a longer view.

"The message is being sent to the larger community that is related to this and other investigations," said Jeffrey Cole, a former federal prosecutor, now a defense attorney, who is representing Ryan's daughters.

"Prosecutors will not tolerate anything but what it perceives to be the absolute, scrupulous truth."

The larger community to which Cole refers is the Illinois insider ecosystem. There are meat eaters and apes in it and even a few dumb herbivores.

It's not a happy summer for state and city politicians, the political combine of Republicans and Democrats who control things here, or for the bosses of the Chicago Outfit. The new U.S. attorney is running a very busy office.

The Operation Safe Road investigation continues. Fawell, Ryan's top political aide, has already been convicted and is awaiting sentencing.

Another Ryan crony, Larry Warner, is facing trial. I figure him to be the political bridge between Ryan and City Hall, with an incredible knowledge of North Side real estate and how things work.

Many other questionable deals at City Hall were run through the office of Mayor Richard Daley's longtime acting purchasing agent, Al "The Mushroom" Grzyb.

For example, Daley's allies the Duffs received $100 million in public contracts, much of it through Daley/Ryan muscle, and that's under investigation too.

The contracts were let through Grzyb and the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, the state/city agency commonly known as McPier, which runs McCormick Place and Navy Pier.

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