Thursday, February 18, 2010

Do you see what I see?

by David Ellis

Last week, Gail Collins of the New York Times said that Illinois has the worst political culture of any state in the union. Obviously it’s a subjective comment (just look at the number of people who thought their own state belonged at the top), though it’s disheartening that our state is even in the conversation. Personally, while I see how we made the list of finalists—Blago, Scott Lee Cohen, Roland Burris—I am of the opinion that many states, if put up to a microscope, would not look so impressive. It reminds me of Florida in 2000, and how ridiculous that state looked in how it counted ballots during the presidential election. I remember thinking at the time that many states, had they come into the spotlight instead of Florida, would likewise have fared pretty badly in how they handled elections. The business of running an election is messy as hell.

I don’t do politics or campaigns in my job. I’m a state employee and the Speaker’s lawyer on state business. I don’t work for the Democratic Party of Illinois and I don’t know very much about campaigns. But let me just say this about Scott Lee Cohen before I move on: My boss, in his other role as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, has come under fire from some people for “allowing” Cohen to win the nomination. He should have stepped in, apparently, and urged people not to vote for Cohen or—better yet—forced Cohen out. I find that criticism positively maddening. Speaker Madigan gets criticized often, in particular by a certain newspaper that assigns reporters full-time to investigate him, for having too much control. But he was supposed to insert himself into a primary election and force a candidate to withdraw his candidacy? Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

When I speak at an event, either for my book or to talk about the Blagojevich impeachment, the most frequent question I get is why Illinois is so corrupt. I think there are three parts to this answer. First: Is Illinois really more corrupt than other states? Not sure I accept that conclusion. More people have been caught recently in Illinois than in other states. Certainly our last two governors—well, that’s embarrassing, no doubt. But I am not even remotely convinced that Illinois is worse than other states.

Part two to the answer is that we have a fairly aggressive federal prosecutor in Chicago. I got to know Pat Fitzgerald a little during the Blagojevich impeachment, as I attempted to use some of the evidence (and witnesses) he had obtained from his federal investigation. I like him on a personal level and respect him very much on a professional level. (Anyone know that he has a very dry and witty sense of humor? He does.)

This should not be taken as criticism but I think it’s fair to say that the federal prosecutors in Chicago are more aggressive than their predecessors in Chicago, and more aggressive than many of their colleagues around the nation. In particular Mr. Fitzgerald has made use of racketeering (RICO) statutes to prosecute political corruption as well as the federal “honest services fraud” law, which is a very broadly applicable law that could cover just about anything. In fact, I would bet my mortgage that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to strike down the “honest services” law as unconstitutionally vague because it's so broad that it’s unpredictable. (In fact, the reason Mr. Fitzgerald recently re-indicted Blagojevich was to err on the side of caution and remove the “honest services” charges, fearing an unfavorable Supreme Court decision, and replace them with RICO charges for the same underlying conduct.)

My point: Some things are being prosecuted in Chicago that previously were not, and which currently are not in other parts of the country. A lot of people think that’s a good thing. It very well may be. That’s not my point. My point is that our state is likely to compare unfavorably to other states if we have more aggressive prosecutors using creative methods to prosecute corruption. And it may very well be the case that what Chicago federal prosecutors consider "corrupt," in some cases, would be something that prosecutors elsewhere would decline to pursue. (Note that I am NOT including Blago in this particular comment; the allegations against him set new extremes.)

The third part of my answer is simply that I think some of these politicians like George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich surrounded themselves with people looking to profit from the association. In my opinion, that was truer of Ryan than Blago; Ryan, it seemed, liked to bury his head in the sand and let his friends do some things he shouldn’t have let them do. (By the way, Ryan was convicted of doing some bad things all on his own, too.) I think Rod did the same thing, though it seems that he was more actively involved in some shady stuff. We’ll see how his trial turns out.

Is there more to it? Is there something else about Illinois? I don’t know. Maybe. But I work with elected and appointed officials every day, and what I see are people who may be “political” in the sense that they care what voters will think of their actions—I believe that’s the point of a democracy—but who want to comply with the law. They will often ask me if it’s okay to do this or that; they want to make sure they are complying with the law. And often, these days, the answer I give them goes something like this: the law isn’t clear, so you’d best err on the side of not doing it; the lines are fuzzy so don’t get near the boundaries. But in the end, I don’t see a bunch of people trying to rip off the people of this state. I don’t see a band of corrupt marauders. Unfortunately, with the Blagojevich trial slated for this Fall and sure to draw national media attention, our reputation won't be improving any time soon.


Dana King said...

Illinois suffers a bit from its--okay, Chicago's--well-earned reputation of being run by the Outfit for so many years. (Not you guys; the other Outfit.) I've read about the GAMBAT investigation and quite a few other books about the history of organized crime in Chicago since the time of Capone, and it was bad.

I also lived in the Chicago area for a few years in the 90s, and I know it's not at all the way it was even thirty years ago. The Family secrets trial won't be cited by the Tourist Bureau anytime soon, but even that didn't involve the kinds of systemic corruption found in GAMBAT and GREYLORD.

For today, I think it's quite likely Chicago's investigators are more aggressive than many others. The perception of corruption in Chicago has become a tradition, so it's fertile ground for them.

Anonymous said...
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Libby Hellmann said...

Tradition... hell, it's an historic legacy.

Dave, great post and one that ought to inspire a lot of conversation.

I've lived in DC, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, and I've NEVER seen such systemic and endemic corruption as I have here. There is almost an expectation of largesse to be had that starts with patronage and goes from there. And while investigators might well be more aggressive here, there are reasons they should be.

There's almost a perverse pride in the tricks that politicians seem to be able to get away with in Chicago and Illinois.

I don't know how you start to change that culture. Indictments and trials? Sure... but it doesn't really get to the root of the problem, which is that whenever a new politican is elected, the doors are perceived to be open for all sorts of chicanery.