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Analysis: Illinois accepts corruption when it comes with competence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2008 - So now we're mad?

A couple of weeks ago, Illinoisans woke to the news that our governor had been hauled from his Chicago home in handcuffs. Federal officials swept in just before dawn, they said, to stop him from selling the state's vacant U.S. Senate seat. In the capital city of Springfield, filled with mid-level government workers, it was hard to find anyone who could drum up sympathy for our second-term chief executive.

Statewide, his favorability rating dropped from an already astounding low of 13 percent to 8 percent. And the chairwoman of a newly organized bipartisan impeachment panel suggested some "want his head" - though she took pains to stress state lawmakers aren't out for "frontier justice."

It shouldn't have come as a surprise when U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald filed a criminal complaint charging Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich with public corruption. Fitzgerald had been investigating Blagojevich for at least five of the six years the governor has held the office. Reporters spent those same years drawing connections between campaign cash and government favors, as well as documenting the governor's penchant for skirting state and federal regulations. Even the politically cautious legislature has been whispering the i-word for more than a year.

The governor's reaction shouldn't have been a surprise either. He's lawyered up and spoiling for it. "I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong," he said during his first official post-arrest statement. He added that he won't be run out of his job by "false accusations and a political lynch mob."

It's not certain he'll be found guilty in the legal or the political courts. Still, the image of a sitting governor being arrested and fingerprinted stunned even the most jaded among us.

The previous governor, a Republican, is sitting in the federal pen for corruption; and we elected, not once but twice, a faux reformer so bored by the details of governing that he's been doing little more than phoning it in. And only now is the guy really getting on our nerves.

How did it come to this? Some would point to our culture, and a colorful one it is. Even Edward Coles, our second governor, noticed. An early 19th century transplant from Virginia, he had this to say about his adopted home: "[T]he more I see and know of the politicians in this state, the less respect and confidence I have in them."

Political scientists are more clinical, putting Illinois in a category they call "individualistic states" where politics is less moralistic - like, say, Wisconsin - and more entrepreneurial. In Illinois, politics is a business to be left to the professionals. In their book, "Illinois Politics and Government: The Expanding Metropolitan Frontier," Sam Gove and Jim Nowlan wrote that "in Chicago parlance, the culture is best described as 'where's mine?' but in more genteel circles, the Illinois system might be termed a government-as-marketplace, where a give-and-take process allocates 'fair shares' of the pie to those who have earned a place at the table."

Let's just call it a grab for spoils.

Historically, Illinoisans have tended to expect their public officials to scoop up a little gravy, as long they get some meat and potatoes in return. After all, what's a little graft if the roads get repaired? That's why, even today, some Illinoisans joke that "except for the corruption, George Ryan was a pretty good governor." He's the one who is sitting in prison now.

This general tolerance is evident in the acquittal of our late Republican Gov. William Stratton. He was tried in the mid-1960s in connection with campaign contributions. Political scientist David Kenney, wrote in "A Political Passage: The Career of Stratton of Illinois" that the late governor was often handed envelopes stuffed with cash and that by this means he collected an extra thousand or two a year. But after U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen testified that public officials on small salaries need the wherewithal to keep up appearances, the jury found Stratton not guilty.

This is the kind of tale Illinoisans love. Former federal Judge Abner Mikva, a Chicagoan who has represented the state in the legislature and Congress, told a summit of scholars a few years back that "Illinoisans have a weird pride in their history of political corruption." We remember the larger-than-life scoundrels, he said, "the statesmen we leave to historians." Sadly, it's true.

We're especially fond of the story of Secretary of State Paul Powell and the shoeboxes stuffed with thousands of dollars found in his Springfield hotel room shortly after he died in 1970. Even in death, Powell managed to stay ahead of investigators. No one has ever been sure how much cash there was, where it came from, or where some of it might have gone before the accountants took over.

And Powell ranks among the best in colorful language. He is reputed to have said, "My friends eat at the first table" and "I smell the meat a cookin'." This would seem to put him a cut above Blagojevich, who was caught on federal tapes with such stripped-down modernist statements as "I want to make money" and "[Y]ou just don't give it away for nothing."

We don't yet know how time will burnish this tale. But we can say Illinoisans appreciate a high degree of audacity, if only later. We had a state auditor of public accounts who managed to embezzle a couple a million dollars or so. Again, no one could settle on a bottom line. And we had the "Good Roads Governor" Len Small, who rewarded political friends with the state's first hard roads. In 1921, Gov. Small was tried for corruption that allegedly occurred during his term as state treasurer.

Bob Howard, who wrote the first edition of "The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent Men," would only allow that Small "may have tampered with the jury." There is, however, a credible eyewitness account in a letter written from a father to his son, now a Springfield attorney. According to the letter, Small's aides used door-to-door baking powder salesmen to canvass the county where the trial was held to assure a friendly jury. Indeed, the jury took 15 minutes to acquit and, according to the account, within a month 11 members of that jury ended up on the state payroll.

Times have changed. Tougher ethics laws are in place, as well as stronger campaign finance rules. And Illinoisans have grown less tolerant of pay-to-play politics. Yet, here it is -- the same old same old.

Apparently, we're still willing to leave politics and governance to the professionals while we get on with our lives. The starkest example of this inattention came during the trial of our previous governor. A prospective juror reportedly had a vague recollection that George Ryan's troubles were "talked about." This was after a six-year federal investigation and major media headlines.

We had plenty of warning, too, about the Blagojevich administration before sleep-walking to the polls to re-elect him.

  • The state's media investigated the governor's practices on hiring and contracting.
  • The governor's own father-in-law accused him of selling jobs.
  • The U.S. attorney informed the state's attorney general he was investigating "very serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud."
  • The state's inspector general reported the administration had "complete and utter contempt for the law" when it came to hiring practices.
  • The state's auditor general charged the administration broke dozens of rules in letting contracts supposedly designed to streamline government. Millions of dollars were misspent while the state was unable to pay legitimate bills to public service providers.

On the day the governor was arrested, the FBI agent in charge was asked whether Illinois is the most corrupt state. "If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States," he said, "it's certainly one hell of a competitor."
By now, the state has had lots of practice.

Peggy Boyer Long edited Illinois Issues magazine from 1994 until her retirement this year. Prior to that, she was a public radio reporter at the Illinois Statehouse where she covered former Govs. Dan Walker, Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar.