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In Illinois, corruption is an accepted way of politics

CHICAGO - More than 25 years ago, a visiting small-town judge stashed a tape recorder in his cowboy boot and came away with shocking evidence of bribe-taking and bagmen in Chicago's courts.

Michael Shakman challenged Chicago patronage years ago.
Michael Shakman challenged Chicago patronage years ago.Read more

CHICAGO - More than 25 years ago, a visiting small-town judge stashed a tape recorder in his cowboy boot and came away with shocking evidence of bribe-taking and bagmen in Chicago's courts.

Former Judge Brocton Lockwood was part of an unprecedented FBI sting operation in the Cook County courts called "Operation Greylord" that uncovered judges, lawyers and clerks taking cash, fixing cases, and engaging in other brazen judicial corruption.

The case was a stark example of the cottage industry of corruption prevalent in Illinois and contributed to its long history of scoundrels and scandals, punctuated by Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich's arrest last week.

"I thought, 'Nothing has changed,' " Lockwood said. "I'm embarrassed for the state. . . . It just makes politics a sleazy business."

His sentiments were echoed by people around the nation as the Blagojevich scandal unfolded: What is it about Illinois that seems to breed political corruption, and why hasn't anyone been able to do anything about it?

Corruption and graft have become so entrenched over the decades that they have become part of the political culture, and experts cite a list of reasons why: Weak state campaign finance laws that have allowed influence peddlers to make big contributions. Lawmakers who don't always get close scrutiny. A patronage system that makes employees beholden to political bosses. And a jaded public that seems to accept chicanery as the cost of doing business.

"The rest of the country kind of grew up and got past the corrupt legislators and urban [political] machines," said Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois-Springfield political science professor. "The reform, good-government movement never got traction in Illinois.

"In some ways, Illinois kind of reminds you of Third World countries where everyone knows to get things done you have to bribe someone every step of the way."

The state's history of rogues and crooks ranges from a long-ago secretary of state who died leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars mysteriously stashed in shoeboxes in his hotel closet to a judge who took money to fix murder cases. Former governors, congressmen, aldermen, and state and city workers have all gone to prison.

"If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor," Chicago FBI chief Robert D. Grant said when the charges were announced against Blagojevich.

The top competitors seem to be New Jersey and Louisiana. More than 130 public officials in New Jersey have been found guilty of federal corruption in the last seven years. And Louisiana more than holds its own.

But no state is immune.

Nationwide, more than 1,800 federal, state and local officials have been convicted of public corruption in the last two years, according to FBI statistics released last spring. The number of pending cases has jumped by 51 percent since 2003, the agency said. In the last decade or so, the governors of Louisiana, Connecticut and Rhode Island have pleaded guilty or been convicted of wrongdoing.

But in Illinois, especially in Chicago, graft has been so rampant it's become part of the folklore.

"It seems to me that corruption in Illinois is incorrigible," said Ron Safer, former head of the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office and now in private practice.

There have been reforms in the state, most notably a new ethics law that goes into affect Jan 1. and is designed to limit the effect of money on politics.

Illinois has long been known as the Wild West of campaign finance, with virtually no limits on who can contribute and how much. The new law prohibits people with state contracts of $50,000 or more from contributing to the politicians who administer them, or to their opponents in an election year.

But Redfield, the political science professor, acknowledges the measure is a narrow prohibition and reflects how hard it is to make sweeping reforms.

The power to make unlimited donations can be corrosive, said Scott Turow, a novelist who was appointed by Blagojevich to a state ethics commission. "Even if you're a moderately, well-intended human being who doesn't have the scruples of a priest, if someone starts handing you $50,000, $100,000 contributions, you can't say it's not going to have an effect," he said.

Michael Shakman, the lawyer whose challenge of Chicago's patronage system nearly 40 years ago led to a decree that bans most political hiring and firing, also said the practice of reserving city payroll jobs for political appointees had contributed to corruption.

"Jobs are plunder," he said. "It makes it easy for villains to get elected and hard for the reformers to do anything about them."

Shakman also blames the lack of enforcement by anyone other than the feds. "When's the last time you heard of the state's attorney indicting an alderman?" he asked. "It's so rare as to be nonexistent. Part of the reason is political, part is resources."

As the Blagojevich case winds its way through the legal system, some experts say this will bring about reform.

But Lockwood, the retired judge, isn't so sure.

"I'm not optimistic," he said. "These things have been going on since before Capone. It hasn't changed anything before. I'm not just going to get my hopes up."