Blagojevich case: Will it seal Illinois' reputation as most corrupt state?
Ousted governor pleaded not guilty to federal charges on Tuesday, as political watchdogs tally cost of state's long history of graft and cronyism.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Like many, Mr. Blagojevich pleaded not guilty, meaning he moves a step closer to trial on 16 federal counts of corruption and conspiracy. And, like three former Illinois governors in the past 35 years, he faces prison time if convicted.
With Illinois' ignominious record (and that's only part of it) comes the bald question: What is it about this state that makes it such a long-standing hotbed of political corruption?
Lest anyone say its ne'er-do-well reputation is exaggerated, consider this: At least 1,000 Illinois officials and businessmen have been convicted of public corruption since 1970, according to a February report by the University of Illinois at Chicago. By another, more recent estimate, corruption costs taxpayers here $300 million a year.
If Illinois' notoriety adds to a mythical canvas colored by gangsters and back-room deals, the Blagojevich saga has the potential to create a watershed moment for the state. Confronted first with voters' expectations for government transparency promised by favorite son Barack Obama, and now with a state budget crisis and recession, Illinois lawmakers are facing intense public and media scrutiny. Next month, they will be forced to address the most comprehensive political-reform proposal in more than 30 years.
“The impeachment and indictment of Rod Blagojevich, coupled with [the imprisonment of Blagojevich predecessor George Ryan], … has made clear to everyone our system is broken and we’re unable to do what we need to do on a whole range of issues,” says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a bipartisan group that promotes transparency in state government. “Politically, we’re just frozen, and we need to change the system to unfreeze the system.”
First corruption trial in 1868
How Illinois got to this moment dates back to 1869 and the state’s first corruption trial, in which four Chicago aldermen were convicted of bribery. The steady influx of immigrants from around the world, matched with aggressive development following the 1871 Chicago fire, helped groom a patronage system that exchanged jobs for political servitude. It is a dynamic that has become the firmament of political life here – and one that many say is gradually suffocating the state economy.
But public anger about graft may rise as people come to see how it affects their pocketbooks. Research into corruption's effect on the Illinois economy has found that state taxpayers shell out a $300 million "corruption tax" each year because of padded salaries and contracts, work paid for services not rendered, ghost payrollers, and revenue lost due to scandal and controversy, according to Dick Simpson, chairman of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former city alderman back in the early 1970s.
“It’s costing it more and we’re getting less. Think of [corruption] as a line item in the budget,” says Dr. Simpson.
Blagojevich’s arrest in December, for instance, lowered Illinois’s credit and bond ratings, resulting in an immediate $20 million increase in the state’s cost to sell $1.4 billion in bonds. Proceeds from the December bond sale were originally intended to cover the state's delinquent bills. To make up the shortfall, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) proposed an increase of nearly 50 percent in state income taxes for individuals, the first such tax hike in 20 years.
“Corruption undermines the willingness of taxpayers to pay higher taxes,” says Simpson. “[The bond issue] is the first time we’ve seen [corruption’s effect] in actual dollars on a single issue.”