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Corruption winds through Illinois politics

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

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When he worked in state government several decades ago, Professor Redfield says, seasoned politicians would talk derisively about “goo-goos,” or “good government” types, implying that unlike those people, they were about “real politics.”

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The list of high-profile Illinois figures tainted by corruption is a long one. There’s Paul Powell, the former Illinois secretary of State who was famously found with $800,000 in shoe boxes in his hotel room when he died.

Or Otto Kerner, the 1960s governor who was convicted of taking bribes from a racetrack owner while he was governor. The bribes were discovered because the owner, seeing them as a normal business expense in Illinois, had deducted them on her income tax returns. Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan, was convicted on corruption charges two years ago and is currently serving time. In the 1990s, US Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, was brought down by a corruption scandal and later pled guilty to charges of mail fraud.

Mr. Rostenkowski’s case, which involved relatively small amounts of money, “shows how ingrained the culture is,” says Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, a nonpartisan Chicago watchdog group established in the 1920s to combat Al Capone’s influence. “Why was someone in his position of authority doing that? The attitude is, ‘If I can get it, I’m going to take it.’ ”

Mr. Stewart is an advocate of strengthening and changing the state’s ethics and transparency laws – particularly putting limits on the amount of campaign contributions – but agrees that it will take more than laws to change the state’s culture.

County attorneys need to start prosecuting corruption, and Illinois voters, he and others say, need to stop turning a blind eye to underhanded behavior.

“In Illinois, a majority of the people place a higher priority on getting the snow cleared in a timely fashion than in having pristine politicians,” says Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. New laws won’t change much, he says, noting that both Governor Ryan and Blagojevich were charged with breaking laws already on the books.

Not all Illinois politicians succumb to those temptations. Many insiders point to examples like former Sen. Paul Simon and current politicians like Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and Attorney General Madigan.