Blagojevich case is part of feds’ focus on graft

The FBI is probing some 2,500 public corruption cases – a 50 percent jump since 2003.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Cracking Down: US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald discusses corruption charges brought against the Illinois governor.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is just the latest in a recent string of high-profile political officials accused or convicted by the federal government of mystifyingly blatant public corruption.

From Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, convicted in October of hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations given to him by a political supporter, to Rep. William Jefferson (D) of Louisiana, who faces a trial on bribery charges next year following the FBI’s discovery of $90,000 in his freezer, the list of tainted politicians is long and colorful.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in recent years has redoubled its efforts to root out public misconduct, accounting for some of the apparent trend. But in general, the catching of multiple hands in multiple cookie jars is a reminder that corruption has no party, temptation is constant, and “constant vigilance” is a good mantra for voters to keep in mind.

“This proves once again that power can make people stupid,” says Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, of the Blagojevich allegations.

Governor Blagojevich returned to work Wednesday, a day after his arrest on charges that included scheming to enrich himself by selling President-elect Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Meanwhile, Senate majority whip Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois called on the Illinois legislature to immediately pass legislation that would require the seat to be filled in a special election, instead of by gubernatorial appointment.

State lawmakers indicated they could move swiftly to draft and pass such legislation.
“No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement,” said Senator Durbin on Dec. 9.

The profane, crass nature of Blagojevich’s comments, as alleged by federal prosecutors in an indictment, stunned even longtime political observers in Washington.

Discussing his power to appoint a replacement to Mr. Obama’s old seat, Blagojevich said, “I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden,” prosecutors alleged.

“It came as a shock,” says Mr. Edgar, who served 12 years in the House as a Democratic lawmaker from Pennsylvania. “It’s appalling.”

The case against the Illinois governor is being directed by Patrick Fitzgerald, the US Attorney for Northern Illinois. Mr. Fitzgerald has been particularly active in attacking state political corruption. He directed the successful prosecution of Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan, for steering state contracts to political cronies, among other cases.

But he’s not the only US attorney pursuing politicians. In New York, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York was forced to resign after federal investigators found that he was a regular customer of a high-end prostitution ring.

That’s in addition to Senator Stevens and Representative Jefferson. Both men were indicted by the feds and, in Stevens’s case, convicted. Both lost reelection bids in November’s vote.

Overall, the FBI now has more than 2,500 pending public corruption investigations, according to bureau spokesperson Jason Pack. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent since 2003.

In the past five years, the number of agents working the public corruption beat has also gone up by 50 percent, according to the FBI. More than 1,800 federal, state, and local officials have been convicted in the last two years alone.

“Unfortunately, the private sector has by no means cornered the market on greed,” said FBI Director Robert Mueller in a speech earlier this year.

Public corruption is now one of the bureau’s top investigative priorities, behind only terrorism, espionage, and cybercrimes, according to official statements.

The Blagojevich case has captured national headlines, but recent investigations have also targeted lower-profile politicians. These politicians include Massachusetts state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who was arrested in October on charges that she accepted $20,000 in cash as payment for the introduction of legislation.

“I think some politicians get a sense of entitlement after they’ve been in office a long time,” says Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. “They deal with lots of wealthy people and they think, ‘Why can’t I live like that?’ ”

In historical terms, high-level political corruption today is less than it used to be, says Professor Schiller, who studies the subject.

Prior to the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, which led to public Senate elections, paying for a Senate seat was not uncommon. In 1899, hoping to be appointed senators from Montana, W.G. Conrad and William Clark laid out $1 million in bribes apiece.

Following the Watergate scandal of President Nixon’s presidency, the federal and many state governments passed laws establishing transparency of the political process, further reducing opportunities for corruption, according to Schiller.

As the recent cases show, corruption continues. “But so much of that stuff really can’t be done anymore,” says Schiller.

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