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Corruption winds through Illinois politics

Weak laws and entrenched culture lets officials put personal gain ahead of public service.

By Staff writer / December 11, 2008

Under fire: Rod Blagojevich is the fourth Illinois governor to face corruption charges since 1973.

M. Spencer Green/AP/FIle

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Chicago

In the annals of corrupt Illinois politicians, Gov. Rod Blagojevich may go down as one of the most brazen. But he has plenty of company.

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Three of the state’s seven previous governors have been convicted and served time. Since 1971, by one count, 31 Chicago aldermen and some 1,000 public officials and businessmen have been convicted.

“We’re the corruption capital of the United States,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a former Chicago alderman, who maintains that state corruption count. “We have more [corruption] even than New Jersey and Louisiana, which are our competitors.”

Politicians blame, in part, Illinois’s loose system of ethics and campaign-finance laws. But the deeper issue may be an entrenched political culture in which trading favors – and money – is often expected and encouraged, people enter politics thinking more about power and personal gain than public service, and the public holds their elected officials to a low standard of ethics.

Governor Blagojevich, charged on Tuesday with mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery, is under increasing pressure to resign. President-elect Obama and several prominent Democrats have called on him to step down, while Illinois Democrats have threatened impeachment. On Thursday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan told CNN she was prepared to ask the state supreme court to have Blagojevich declared unfit for office.

One of the key accusations against him is that he was trying to sell the US Senate seat vacated by Mr. Obama. The president-elect said Thursday neither he nor his staff had been contacted about the case. State legislative leaders say they will strip Blagojevich of his power to choose the new senator at a special session Monday.

Blagojevich’s alleged conduct, while quite aggressive, is not an isolated case.

“We tend to treat politics as a business,” says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield. “It’s not about public interest, it’s just the aggregate of individual self-interest.... It’s about power and winning and jobs.”

“That kind of culture is pervasive,” he says, noting that even former Gov. Jim Thompson, who rose to power as the US attorney who convicted Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and several top aides to Mayor Richard J. Daley, eventually bragged about the extent of his patronage operation.

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