Illinois and integrity: a strange tale and curious mix

State scored well for reform but retains a culture of corruption

By

 Updated:

A sign for the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Seth Andreson/Flickr

The political epitaph for recently defeated Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn aptly summarizes Illinois’ rich history of corruption.

He may have been ineffective, local wags said, but at least he hasn’t been indicted.

Not yet, anyway.

Executive innocence is not to be taken for granted in Illinois, a state where four of the past nine governors have gone to prison and Secretary of State Paul Powell stashed hundreds of thousands of dollars into a shoe box, briefcases and strongboxes that were discovered after his death in 1970.

And there’s more. Much more. For decades a steady stream of local, state and federal politicians have been tried and convicted in the Land of Lincoln. In fact, from 1976 to 2012, 1,913 public officials ended up behind bars after their trials in Illinois’ Northern District, the federal court for the state’s northern counties, according to an analysis by longtime political observers Dick Simpson and Tom Gradel, authors of Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism and Criminality.

That’s the nation’s third-highest rate in the country after the District of Columbia and Louisiana, the pair found.

So how is it, then, that Illinois fared relatively well in the 2012 State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive national ranking of state government transparency and accountability published by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International?

In 2012 Illinois received a seemingly mid-range grade of C, but that was the eleventh highest mark in the country. Louisiana came in fifteenth, with a C- grade. New Jersey, another state with a long corruption history, topped the list with a B+.

The explanation for these grades lies in both action and reaction. In Illinois, the corruption has traditionally stemmed from the intersection of the state’s fabled machine-based political culture, grounded in Chicago, with the sheer volume of governmental units. These circumstances have provided fertile ground for the kind of wacky scandals (just Google Rod Blagojevich) that have garnered national and even international attention. And the scandals, in turn, have prompted some reasonably aggressive and well-intentioned state-level reforms that yielded a comparatively high grade for Illinois’current anti-corruption regime.

“Our conclusion was: To get good integrity laws, you have to have major scandals,” said Bob Reed, director of programming for nonprofit government watchdog Better Government Association (BGA). “It’s a reaction to the scandal de jour.”

Reed explained that the BGA found that Louisiana and Illinois also performed relatively well on an integrity index the organization did in 2013.

“There are elements of closing the barn door after the many horses had gotten away,” he said. “They’re trying to fix the problems of the past.”

But even if some of those problems are addressed, political observers say, a deeper one remains — a challenge not subject to legislative fixes or new disclosure rules. A problem of attitude, ingrained and unchanged. In Illinois, says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, the public service ethos is different than in other Midwestern states like Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.

“You don’t get into it to make money,” Yepsen said of public servants in those other states. “Here it’s just a way of doing business. It’s hard to get a meaningful reform effort going when the system is so rigged in favor of institutions that want to maintain the status quo.

“The result is a government that is the laughingstock of the country,” Yepsen said.

An overly harsh assessment? Perhaps. Reporters in every state are now hard at work on an update of the State Integrity Investigation, due out this fall. It’s too early to know how Illinois will score this time around, but the additional reform initiatives that emerged in this legislative session do not give much cause for optimism. Most of them either have been stuck in committee or were passed by just one of the two chambers.

The machine

In Corrupt Illinois, Simpson and Gradel write about the state’s lengthy history of corruption — a history they trace back to the 1833 elections in Chicago, where more votes were counted than there were voters.

From the beginning, the Windy City was at the center of the state’s political culture. Yepsen said many of the ethnic immigrant arrivals to Chicago from Europe, and in some cases the South, viewed government as a business.

“ ‘I use it for a job, I use it to take care of my family,’ ” he said in describing people’s attitudes. “That’s the way we get things done.”

This culture has contributed to the rise of political machines.

And not just in the big town. Illinois has also seen machines in places like Kankakee, a river city and Republican stronghold, where former Gov. George Ryan rose up through the ranks before being convicted on federal racketeering and fraud charges after his term as governor ended in 2003. There have also been suburban fiefdoms like that of Rita Crundwell, who served for nearly three decades as treasurer of tiny Dixon, the childhood home of the late President Ronald Reagan. Crundwell embezzled more than $53 million in what is believed to be the largest municipal fraud in American history.

Still, those machines paled in comparison to the sophisticated apparatus that developed in Chicago.

Coming to prominence under Democratic Mayor Anton Cermak in the late 1920s and early 1930s, machine politics hit its apex under Richard J. Daley. During his 21 years in office, Daley systematized the dispensing of tens of thousands of patronage jobs and assorted welfare benefits while offering avenues of social mobility to a diverse range of ethnic immigrant groups, according to the online Encyclopedia of Chicago.

The stories of Daley’s consolidation of power through patronage have been vividly chronicled in works ranging from iconic columnist Mike Royko’s bitingly acerbic biography, Boss, to Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor’s more measured, American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation. Although different in tone, the works paint a consistent picture of a firmly entrenched political operation of statewide reach in which personal loyalty, patronage and relationships all trumped public interest.

This system led to experiences like the one former Democratic congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva recounted in a 1999 interview. As he walked home from law school in 1948, Mikva recalled, he told a ward committeeman he wanted to volunteer for Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas.

“This quintessential Chicago ward committeeman took the cigar out of his mouth and glared at me and said, ‘Who sent you?’ I said, ‘Nobody sent me.’ He put the cigar back in his mouth and he said, ‘We don't want nobody that nobody sent.’ ”

While not as powerful as it was under the first Daley, machine politics continues to exert an influence in a number of ways on city, county and state levels, according to Simpson and Gradel.

The influence has roots both in demography — for much of last century Cook County had more than half of the state’s residents — and in the fact that many of the politicians who have come to play a significant role in state-level political activity have come up through the same pay-to-play environment.

The Speaker of the House

Politicians like House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The scion of a political family — his father was a precinct captain in the 13th Ward — Madigan grew up in a system where loyalty was paramount — and absolute. Journalist James Ylisela wrote in 2013 that the elder Daley is one of the two men who have most profoundly shaped the speaker’s worldview, according to people who have known him for decades. In a letter emailed to the Center, Madigan said his father, Daley and former state Rep. Zeke Giorgi of Rockford “convinced me the government should help the needy in our society.”

Daley’s impact on Madigan can be seen in Chicago, where Ylisela wrote that “he oversees an army of loyal foot soldiers nicknamed Madigoons, many of whom also hold patronage jobs in any number of city, county, and state government offices and agencies.”

That impact is also visible in Springfield, where Madigan has served as speaker of the House every term but one since 1983. Madigan’s iron grip on the House embodies the personal-relationship style of politics that fosters corrupt behavior, according to Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

“If you cross the speaker, you’re just dead,” he said. “It is a very kind of personal politics.”

The man former Gov. Ryan originally called the “Velvet Hammer” is also a partner at a prominent property tax law firm who has used his office to shape legislation and push state contracts that have sent millions of dollars to clients of the firm, according to a series of stories in the Chicago Tribune.

One Tribune columnist called Madigan a “walking conflict of interest.” A Tribune editorial said that he had weakened bills affecting banks, nursing homes and pharmacies that had hired his firm, but noted there was no “smoking gun” indicating that Madigan had violated any ethics rules. Still, the editorial said, “You don’t need an ethics expert to deduce that something is very wrong in Illinois.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told the Center in 2013 that Madigan has not violated any laws, and that he complies with a personal code of conduct that says nothing he does in his public work will benefit him or his firm privately. Madigan wrote in his letter to the Center, “The charge of corrupt behavior generally comes from Republicans who have lost their last election.”

The troubled reign of Rod

Disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who crossed Madigan in a bitter feud that brought legislative activity in the capital to a virtual standstill for much of 2007 and 2008, is another politician whose career trajectory reveals the influence of Chicago in Springfield.

Blagojevich is the son-in-law of longtime alderman Richard Mell, who spoke with unabashed pride in a Chicago Tribune interview shortly before his 2013 retirement about the army of patronage workers he had at his disposal.With Mell’s backing, Blagojevich made his way through the state Legislature and three terms in the U.S. Congress from Chicago’s North Side. In 2002, he was elected governor.

But Mell in 2005 publicly accused Blagojevich of corruption. This happened after Blagojevich shut down a landfill owned by friend of Mell, Frank Schmidt. Blagojevich asserted that Schmidt had accepted construction debris without a permit and accused him of “using his ties to the Blagojevich family to solicit” business for an illegal-dumping operation. Mell said Blagojevich drummed up charges against Schmidt to draw attention away from Blagojevich’s top fundraisers and their pay-to-play practice of soliciting campaign contributions in exchange for political appointments.

In December 2008 then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicted Blagojevich.

“Fitzgerald charged that the Governor and his associates had engaged in a ‘political-corruption crime spree,’ ” David Mendell wrote in The New Yorker. The same day, prosecutors disclosed the now famous recordings of Blagojevich exulting in the windfall that had come to him because, as governor, he was entitled to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama’s election to the presidency.

The day after the election Blagojevich told an adviser, “I’ve got this thing and it’s f---ing golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for f---in’ nothing.”

Redfield said these statements and actions were grounded in a Chicago-style code of behavior.

“Blagojevich treated the state of Illinois like a supersized Chicago ward,” he said. “In supersize Chicago, everything has a price; people expect that. You don’t give anything away for nothing, whether it’s a U.S. Senate seat or a plumbing inspection,” Redfield said.

Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office in January 2009 and indicted by a federal grand jury in April 2009.

Mendell wrote that Blagojevich responded by appearing regularly on reality and talk shows like the Late Show with David Letterman, where he claimed that he had done nothing wrong and ripped into federal authorities for persecuting an innocent man.”

In August 2010, he was convicted on one charge of lying to the FBI, but the jury was hung on 23 other counts. Before his retrial, prosecutors dropped three counts, and in June 2011 he was found guilty on 17 of the 20 remaining public corruption charges.

The former governor’s pretrial antics gained the state international notoriety and contributed to the sense among Springfield politicians that strong measures had to be taken to make state politics more transparent and to raise the level of integrity, according to Reed of the Better Government Association.

“You have to ask, Why all of a sudden is there an appetite to make these changes?” Reed said. “There is an embarrassment factor. It went beyond our border and had a detrimental effect on the image and … the standing of the fifth-largest state in the union.”

The costs of corruption

“Something needed to be done,” Reed said, describing lawmakers’ sentiment after Blagojevich’s ouster.

Indeed, actions were taken that contributed to Illinois’surprising score in the State Integrity Investigation. State legislators set new campaign finance limits, overhauled state procurement, created a path to recall a misbehaving governor and changed the state’s budgeting and planning procedures, the State Integrity Investigation found.

Measures increasing oversight and transparency of purchasing decisions sought to revive the public’s shaken confidence and to thwart future pay-to-play schemes. For the first time legislators restricted how much individual candidates, political leaders, political action committees and political parties could receive. Political committees had to report receipts and expenditures quarterly, rather than every six months. And candidates had to tell the State Board of Elections about any contribution of at least $1000 within five days; if the election is less than a month away, then the notification for those larger contributions must occur within two days.

These post-Blagojevich changes helped form the basis of Illinois’ comparatively high overall score for state government measures. But a closer look at some of the project’s individual categories shows substantial differences between the reform laws’ progressive intent and the actual practice of implementation and enforcement.

In a variety of categories making up Illinois’ score — Political Financing, Judicial Accountability and State Civil Service Management among them — the state earned high marks for the laws on the books, but scored far lower on the effectiveness of those same laws.

A particularly illustrative category: Public Access to Information.

Based in large part on the freedom of information overhaul passed in the aftermath of the Blagojevich scandal, Illinois received a perfect 100 for its public access to information, but only a 63 for the effectiveness of that law.

The public access counselor, a position first created by Attorney General Lisa Madigan (Speaker Michael Madigan’s daughter) and enacted as a permanent position as part of the 2010 law, has no authority to penalize public bodies that don’t comply with the Freedom of Information Act, the State Integrity Investigation found.

At a March panel during a freedom of information event, Public Access Counselor Sarah Pratt acknowledged that her office still had requests for review of FOIA requests that stretch all the way back to 2011. Pratt said she could use a 50 percent increase in lawyers for her staff.

Maryam Judar, executive director of nonprofit group the Citizen Advocacy Center, said a series of “blowback” provisions have been passed that dilute the law’s power even further. She cited provisions that allow agencies to take more time to respond to people who file many requests and that give agencies free rein to say that a request is “unduly burdensome.”

Even if the law had not been weakened, the number of journalists covering statehouses across the country,has plunged in the past decade, according to Yepsen of the Simon Institute. A 2009 study by the American Journalism Review found that the number of statehouse reporters had dropped in Illinois from 2003, and a Pew Research Center report showed that the state had one of the lowest ratios of statehouse reporters to residents in the country. This dearth of coverage has emboldened public officials who might otherwise not engage in illegal activity, he said.

Political financing is another troubling issue for reformers. Based in part on post-Blagojevich reforms, the state scored 90 percent on the sub-category of regulations governing the financing of individual political candidates as part of the State Integrity Investigation.

Yet state legislators also responded to the 2010 Citizens United decision by passing a bill in 2012 removing contribution limits that had applied to certain types of political action committees. This has contributed further to what Brian Gladstein, director of programs and strategy for Common Cause Illinois, called “a playground of opportunity” for special interest influence.

Possible corruption cure

The fight for a cleaner Illinois goes on, but no one sees a quick turnaround. Authors Simpson and Gradel, for instance, have delineated an eight-point plan to transform Illinois’ political culture.

Among the initial proposals: greater transparency and accountability, more inspectors general, a widespread program of civic education in schools and greater citizen participation in government and politics.

A proposal to require civics education is among more than a half-dozen accountability and transparency bills that were proposed in the Illinois General Assembly in the just-concluded legislative session. Legislators have since been called back, but mostly to deal with the budget.

Others would have required university police departments to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, forced local governing bodies to maintain websites with budget and contracting information and authorized the secretary of state to institute an Internet-based system for the filing of statements of economic interests.

In early May Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a bill mandating that the Governor’s Office of Boards and Commissions post online meeting notices and agendas at least 48 hours before each meeting. With one exception, the other bills all died somewhere in the legislative process.

Individual bills aside, Simpson and Gradel believe that transforming Illinois’ political culture could take several decades.

The task is complicated by Illinois being the most highly bureaucratized state in the country, according to a BGA analysis. With nearly 7,000 stand-alone units of government, Illinois has by far the largest number in the country, the BGA found.

This degree of bureaucratization provides fertile ground for corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness, according to Redfield, the emeritus professor.

The sheer size of government is daunting enough, he says, while the number of governmental units also cultivates in the public a transactional, relationship-based approach toward maneuvering in the system.

“Clearly, the schools and local government is too fragmented,” he said “That makes it difficult for citizens to know who to talk to …. It reinforces the idea that ‘I can’t get engaged with [this], politicians are in for themselves ….’ It reinforces the idea that it’s about connection, who has the inside track.

“Outcomes are dependent on personal relationships rather than value,” he said.

Of course, the State Integrity Investigation dealt only with state government, not local governance. Even in Springfield, though, reformers must also contend with a broader challenge: public cynicism. Many Illinoisans faulted Blagojevich not so much for his illegal activities but for getting caught. Reed of the Better Government Association said such attitudes give law-breaking politicians cover for their wayward behavior.

“Until we turn the corner and say that this is unacceptable, [and] you are shunned, not embraced, this is going to continue,” he said.

But Yepsen of the Paul Simon Institute said he believes the public has tired of the corruption and is ready to push for change.

“The politicians can’t hold this off forever,” he said. “I think over time, stuff will start to change. “I’m hopeful, anyway.”

This story was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now