Wed, Dec 17, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Illinois’ political legacy means that graft is par for the course

By Kate Zernike  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YAORK

As much as politicians in Illinois have had a tradition of corruption, the people of Illinois have had a tradition of accepting it — even expecting it — and long before Governor Rod Blagojevich was accused of trying to put a Senate seat up to the highest bidder.

Otto Kerner, who served as governor in the 1960s, was found to have accepted bribes in the form of racetrack stock but only after the track owner deducted it on her taxes as a cost of doing business.

After Paul Powell, an Illinois secretary of state, longtime state legislator and infamous dealmaker, died in 1970, associates discovered US$800,000 in undocumented cash in shoeboxes, briefcases and strongboxes in his closet, a considerable cache for a man who had never earned a salary of more than US$30,000.

Powell had emerged unscathed from a grand jury investigation into accusations that he bought stock in a harness racing company.

As he said, “It wound up with the grand jurors wanting to know from me where they could buy racetrack stock.”

The state’s unusually lax laws have allowed corruption to flourish — in fact, prosecutors say, it was the threat of a new campaign finance law that takes effect next month that set Blagojevich on one last spree of pay-to-play.

The tradition was established by the immigrants who settled the state in the 19th century and nurtured by a stubborn system of machine politics that other states eradicated long ago.

“There is this attitude among politicians, and frankly among citizens, that this is the way things are,” said Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “Politics is for professionals.”

The surprise for many Illinoisans last week was not that their governor was arrested, but that he could be brazen enough to try to sell a US Senate seat when he was already under federal investigation.

Now the culture of his adopted home state threatens to dog US president-elect Barack Obama, whose vacated seat in the Senate Blagojevich is accused of putting up for auction, much as swampy Arkansas politics dogged the last young Democratic politician elected on a platform of change, former president Bill Clinton.

Prosecutors say Obama is not a subject of the investigation. And he has been a champion of ethics reform in the Illinois Legislature and in the Senate. But some Republicans have seized the opportunity to try to tie him to the worst side of Illinois politics.

As he faced questions at a news conference in Chicago last week, Obama argued that there were two Illinoises — and that he came from the one not represented in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich.

Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said: “It’s as if we have a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other.”

“We have produced some real leaders,” Canary said, mentioning former senator Paul Simon, the former federal judge Abner Mikva and, of course, Abraham Lincoln. “At the same time, for historic and systemic reasons, we have real institutional corruption.”

Certainly other states have their problems. The Corporate Crime Reporter ranked Illinois a mere sixth on a list of the most corrupt states last year, based on federal public corruption convictions per 100,000 residents. (It was beaten by Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Ohio; it was slightly ahead of New Jersey and New York.)

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