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Illinois Politicians: Really Corrupt Or Just Dumb?

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Illinois Politicians: Really Corrupt Or Just Dumb?

Politics

Illinois Politicians: Really Corrupt Or Just Dumb?

Illinois Politicians: Really Corrupt Or Just Dumb?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129485742/129492564" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was found guilty of lying to the FBI, making him the second consecutive Illinois governor to be convicted of a crime. John Gress/Getty Images hide caption

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John Gress/Getty Images

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was found guilty of lying to the FBI, making him the second consecutive Illinois governor to be convicted of a crime.

John Gress/Getty Images

Although Rod Blagojevich's political corruption trial resulted in a hung jury on most counts, the guilty verdict on one count of lying to the FBI makes him the second consecutive Illinois governor to be convicted of a crime and the fourth in less than 40 years.

Democrat Blagojevich's predecessor, Republican George Ryan, is serving a 6 1/2-year federal prison sentence following his corruption conviction in 2006.

And it's not just governors. Hundreds of other Illinois public officials have been convicted in a state that some call the "corruption capital" of the nation.

Political corruption takes up so much of his and his agents' time that Robert Grant, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office, said this on Dec. 9, 2008, hours after arresting Blagojevich: "If [Illinois] isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor."

Corruption At All Levels

And how about this for a measure of just how corrupt Illinois is: The chairman of the political science department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Dick Simpson, has as his area of expertise studying political corruption.

Simpson says there's no question about it: Illinois is indisputably the most corrupt state, and Chicago is the most corrupt city in the nation. And he has some eye-popping figures to back up those claims.

"So far, we believe there have been since 1970 about 1,500 people convicted of public corruption. Most of them are public officials, either elected or appointed," he says. "They occur at all levels of government from suburban trustee to the governor of the state of Illinois."

Simpson, who served as a reform-minded alderman in Chicago in the 1970s, led the small but vocal opposition bloc to the machine led by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. He says the first corruption trial in Chicago took place in the 1860s, and they have continued ever since.

"At the most local level, the building inspector might take a $50 bill or a $100 bill to not write up a building violation. An alderman might take $500 for a zoning variance so you can build a high rise instead of a single-family house," Simpson says.

A case in point: While the Blagojevich trial was going on this summer in one courtroom in Chicago's Dirksen federal building, in another, former Chicago Alderman Ike Caruthers was sentenced for taking bribes from a developer in exchange for favorable zoning changes — something his father went to prison for when he was alderman nearly 30 years ago.

"Chicago politicians do not seem to be able to learn," Simpson says. "They repeat the same mistakes over and over."

In yet another courtroom, Al Sanchez, who served as Streets and Sanitation commissioner under current Mayor Richard M. Daley, was tried and convicted.

The Cost Of Corruption

Simpson says voters here historically have accepted corruption as a fact of life, so long as the garbage is picked up on time, streets are plowed and the potholes are filled.

But Simpson says corruption isn't benign. In Illinois, it hits taxpayers hard. He has calculated that the cost of corruption in dollars in Illinois is about $500 million a year.

That amount is lost in revenue to waste, corruption, patronage, in payoffs and in faulty contracts, he says.

David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says there's another cost beyond dollars and cents.

"I think having two governors in a row go on trial for corruption gives voters a lot of fuel for cynicism," he says.

Morrison says he sees increasing anger and frustration with the state's corrupt culture and with one of the main ingredients fueling it: campaign cash.

'Something In The Water'

With virtually no campaign finance regulations, Illinois has been known as the wild, wild West of political fundraising. That will change next year with a new state law setting contribution limits for the first time and a few other restrictions. But Morrison says much more needs to be done to change Illinois' corrupt ways.

"Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan both laid bare the road map to corruption and if we don't change the system, we're just waiting for someone to follow that same road map to abuse what we have in this state," he says.

"There is something in the water in Illinois," says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, who prosecuted Ryan, "that I think makes what happened to Ryan and Blagojevich more likely to happen in another state or another environment and I don't know what it is."

Collins says what shocks him is not only that elected officials keep getting indicted in Illinois, but that there also are a steady stream of aiders and abettors around them, people on politicians' staff and within their inner circles who go along with corrupt schemes.

"You can't indict your way to reform in Illinois and if we're expecting [U.S. Attorney] Pat Fitzgerald and his very talented group of lieutenants to do it, I think it's a fool's errand," he says.

Collins chaired a statewide political reform commission last year that recommended an overhaul of state campaign and ethics laws, a few of which were adopted. But he says much more needs to be done, and Illinois voters need to become more active and aggressive in demanding reform.

Collins says he fears the mixed verdict in the Blagojevich case may have the opposite effect, frustrating and turning off voters. That, he says, could allow corruption in Illinois to continue to fester.