Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blagojevich and the Culture of Corruption

The old rubric trotted out when yet another chapter of Illinois corruption unfolds is that the state "ain't ready for reform."

This was the famous quote from long-dead Chicago alderman Paddy Bauler, whose palm was always open to express his self-interest.

Now comes Governor Rod Blagojevich, wiretapped by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the fourth governor out of the last seven with law-enforcement problems. Our governor was allegedly trying to sell President-elect Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder, among other charges in a 75-page criminal indictment announced by Fitzgerald yesterday.

As an Illinois resident who has lived in the Prairie State for more than 50 years, good government type (a "goo-goo" is the mocking term) and journalist, the appalling harlotry of our governor sickens me. He should resign immediately or be impeached by the Illinois General Assembly, which has not been able to manage any of its gargantuan problems in the Blagojevich era.

The legislature has been deadlocked over feuds, sleights, misdeeds and arrogant behavior (not all of it emanating from the Governor's office). The crushing issues of a state budget deficit, education funding reform, state pension shortfalls and capital improvements have been set aside while his petulant politics created a giant sucking sound called a leadership vacuum.

I am always intrigued by official corruption in Illinois because I have always been able to study it and see it up close. I was born in Chicago Heights, which was controlled by the Chicago syndicate at the time I was born through the 1980s. When I worked my first job at the Chicago Heights Star in 1978, I was witness to the thorough ownership of public officials there by the outfit. Only a few years after I left, the mayor and most of the city council was indicted, convicted and sent to prison.

When I moved onto reporting on the South Side of Chicago, I saw more of the same. Labor unions like the Teamsters and Laborers worked hand in hand with local mob bosses and politicians. It was understood who controlled what and where the money went. In the case of the Central States Teamsters Pension Fund, it was mob-controlled casinos in Las Vegas until the union was put into federal trusteeship an the mobsters involved either murdered each other or were sent to jail.

Even moribund sections of Chicago, once home to thriving steel mills and other plants, were run by politicians who were more interested in lining their own pockets than serving their constituents. Before I even put pen to paper in the late 1970s, Illinois history was bursting with startling examples of blatant corruption.

It was well known that if you wanted a license or to pass anything in the Illinois legislature or Chicago City Council, you would simply pass around bags of money to aldermen with the desired instructions. Charles Tyson Yerkes, a rapacious scoundrel who owned the streetcar lines and wanted long-term franchises from the city council approached Governor John Peter Altgeld in his attempt to secure what he wanted.

Yerkes campaigned for longer streetcar franchises in 1895. He offered governor Altgeld a huge bribe, but Altgeld rejected it and vetoed the franchise bills. Yerkes renewed the campaign in 1897 and successfully secured from the Illinois Legislature a bill granting city councils the right to approve extended franchises. A somewhat reformed council under Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr., however, finally defeated Yerkes, with the swing votes coming from aldermen "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin.

Politicians were bought and sold as if they were slabs of meat in the Chicago stockyards. Even Sam Insull (see my book "Merchant of Power"), the 1920s utilities baron who refused to bribe alderman for an extortion deal to gain a city electricial franchise, donated piles of cash to Frank Smith, who won a Senate seat. The Senate refused to seat Smith, noting that Insull had "bought" Smith.

The problem then and now is that Illinois was always lax in controlling and monitoring campaign contributions. There is NO limit on how much you can donate to an Illinois candidate. That's why Blagojevich was raking in checks for tens of thousands of dollars from state contractors and expected an endless stream of boodle for every favor granted. That was the way business in Illinois had always been done.

Not every Illinois politician has been as venal and tainted as Blagojevich. We've produced some remarkable and honest leaders from Lincoln to Senators Paul Douglas, Everett Dirksen and Paul Simon. We've also consistently offered great reformers and muckrakers in the guise of Jane Addams and Mike Royko along with groups like the Better Government Association.

I would count Pat Quinn, the current lieutenant governor (and likely our next governor) as one of the current reformers. I've met Quinn twice and he's always struck me as a true public servant. Perhaps time will prove me a liar, but I tend to believe he will make an honest stab at being a leader who places the people's interest above his own -- a rare quality in an Illinois official.

While human nature won't change anytime soon, the culture of corruption can be shut down. Every leader must sign onto a code of ethics, the watchdogs must be well funded and fully empowered and a set of laws must be put into place to stop pay-for-play deals. Maybe public funding of elections is a good idea. Maybe term limits is another. A combination of checks and balances is usually the best route.

How do you halt pay to play when so much money is sloshing around for state and city business? "Where's Mine," the state's political motto, needs to be replaced with "I'm here to serve the people." A new ethics law that will come on the books Jan. 1 will certainly help. It was passed after an override of the governor's veto. It was Barack Obama who urged Senate president Emil Jones to push it through. Jones, a Chicago machine Democrat, originally opposed it.

More importantly, it will take a new generation of leaders who are truly humbled and emboldened by public service to understand that they serve the people first, not themselves. Where do you find these people? We have to recruit them to make public office a noble and altruistic enterprise. Perhaps with a new president who campaigned on "the audacity of hope," we will finally find a good example.

John F. Wasik

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