Illinois Corruption Probes Don't End at Ryan

Fresh from the conviction of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, federal prosecutors move on. A former top aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley goes on trial next month and probes of state political corruption continue.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. After winning the conviction of former Illinois Republican Governor George Ryan this week, federal authorities in Chicago are showing no signs of slowing down in their pursuit public corruption. Several ongoing investigations into alleged corruption in state, county and city government may now pick up steam as a former top aide to Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley goes on trial next month. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

If it seems as though people are walking a little more softly in these hallways of Chicago's City Hall, veteran Alderman Tom Murphy says it's probably true.

Mr. TOM MURPHY (Alderman, Chicago): The conviction of former Governor Ryan on all 18 counts would certainly embolden the federal district attorney to pursue all avenues of what he views as political corruption, yes.

SCHAPER: Do you have any sense if that makes people in this building a little more nervous?

Mr. MURPHY: I would say it should.

Ms. CINDY CANARY (Executive Director, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform): I think that office holders at the state level, at the county level, and certainly at City Hall, are shaking in their boots right now.

SCHAPER: Cindy Canary is director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. She says in the wake of the Ryan verdict some other public officials might be looking out for Chicago's U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

Ms. CANARY: Patrick Fitzgerald has really kind of redefined what good government should mean in Illinois, and for Illinois really it's a radical notion that you don't go into office for personal gain and profit.

SCHAPER: Canary says the jury in essence convicted the Illinois political culture in which Ryan flourished, steering lucrative state contracts to lobbyist friends in exchange for cash, gifts, free vacations and loans. Following the verdict, jurors acknowledged there was no smoking gun, but a pile of evidence and testimony presented by prosecutors over six months, much of it demonstrating a pervasive pattern of corrupt behavior by Ryan. That's a change from the way Illinois political corruption has been tried in the past. Former trials often relied on sting operations that caught politicians on tape taking envelopes of cash or recorded them holding damming conversations in which orders or quid pro quos are clear. Fitzgerald himself used the guilty verdict to put the state's politicians on notice.

Mr. PATRICK J. FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, North District, Illinois): I think people now know that if you're part of a corrupt conduct where one hand is taking care of the other and contracts are going to people, you don't have to say the word bribe out loud. And I think people need to understand we won't be afraid to bring strong circumstantial cases into court.

SCHAPER: And there are several more political corruption cases his office is pursuing. One alleges corruption in the state board that finances hospital construction. Others involve the office of current Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich. But the biggest scandal unfolding right now is in Chicago's City Hall, where 44 people have been indicted thus far and 35 convicted in a probe of bribes paid for city trucking contracts and allegations of illegal hiring. In less than three weeks, Mayor Daley's handpicked hiring coordinator goes on trial along with three other administration officials, and it's unlikely the investigation will stop there.

There is apparently so much government graft here that the FBI Office in Chicago, at a time when terrorism is the top priority, is getting a third squad to investigate public corruption. That's more FBI agents detailed to corruption than in either New York or LA.

Mr. JAY STEWART (Executive Director, The Better Government Association): It's shooting fish in a barrel.

SCHAPER: Jay Stewart is Executive Director of the Chicago-based watchdog group The Better Government Association.

Mr. STEWART: They will follow it to the very top. They are not going to give somebody a pass simply because they hold the highest elected office.

SCHAPER: And Stewart says that doesn't just mean the mayor of Chicago and the governor of Illinois should worry. After all, Chicago's U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is also the special prosecutor leading the CIA leak investigation of the White House. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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