Shock and gall in Illinois

The Blagojevich case signals the need for vigilance by citizens, too, to eye the corrupt.

"We're not going to end corruption in Illinois by arrests and indictments alone," said prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald after laying out charges Tuesday against Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He's right – and not only for one state. Americans can't leave it to law officers to smoke out corruption in high places. Democracy needs vigilance by everyone to keep government free of taint from money politics.

Illinois is hardly alone in its high level of graft, even though it has had four governors in trouble with the law in the past 35 years and Chicago still carries a reputation for sleazy politics.

In the past decade, former governors of Alabama, Connecticut, and Louisiana have been found guilty of money crimes. A few Massachusetts politicians now face corruption charges.

Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens was found guilty of lying about gifts from a political supporter. New York Rep. Charles Rangel, head of the House tax panel, is being probed on allegations of seeking money for political favors and of dodging taxes on his homes. At least a dozen recent representatives in the House have been nailed for corruption.

In New Orleans Saturday, voters took matters into their own hands. US Congressman William Jefferson – who has been indicted on several corruption counts – lost his reelection bid to a Republican in a heavily Democratic district.

Citizens of Illinois now have a chance to influence their state legislators to impeach Governor Blagojevich. FBI tapes of his alleged attempts to "sell" the seat of former Sen. Barack Obama and to use state money to force the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers – among other bizarre charges – signal a massive abuse of power.

It's not clear if Blagojevich was allegedly seeking money for personal gain or to lard up his campaign chest. But the practice of politicians who dispense favors for campaign money is common at the state level.

Political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote in a 1966 essay "Corruption: The Shame of the States" that officials will "steal when there is a lot of money lying around loose and no one is watching. They will resist minor temptation, particularly if everyone else does and someone is checking up."

As Congress moves to throw billions at the states for infrastructure projects for economic stimulus, more eagle-eyes are needed to watch how that money is spent. And with more newspapers folding and laying off journalists, citizens need to step up their watchdog role.

Prosecutors play a central role, of course. After Watergate, a "public integrity" section was set up in the Justice Department. From 2001 to 2006, it won convictions for 5,876 individuals on public corruption. The FBI has more than 600 agents dedicated to such cases, nearly double from a decade ago.

Temptations for greed or graft are rising with the need for politicians to raise higher amounts of campaign cash. Politicians are more susceptible to helping donors, such as with earmarks on spending bills.

The Blagojevich case seems to have uncovered a whopper of an example of someone charged with selling his office for favors. It's a wake-up call for every citizen everywhere.

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