Bigger fish will reel in political corruption

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Another second-tier Chicago political crook drew a top-tier federal prison sentence Wednesday, and I am ready to declare it a trend.

In sentencing former Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno to 11 years on corruption charges, U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman looked to the example of Moreno’s sometimes partner-in-crime, ex-Ald. Ambrosio Medrano.

Feinerman and another judge recently sentenced Medrano to a combined 13 years in prison for his own “corruption trifecta” after racking up his second and third federal convictions.

When you couple those punishments with the 14-year sentence handed out previously to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the 10 ½ years to his political adviser Tony Rezko, I think it’s fair to observe that more federal judges in Chicago are getting serious about handing down longer sentences to corrupt politicians.

Feinerman argued longer sentences are necessary to end Chicago’s longstanding “Where’s mine?” political culture, as he quoted the late columnist Mike Royko’s unofficial city slogan: “Ubi Est Mea.”

“The point has to be made, and the signal needs to be sent,” said Feinerman, who came on the federal bench in 2010.

I’m still trying to get my arms around this new reality, having previously gone on record as saying the Blagojevich sentence was more severe than necessary.

While others have been clamoring for tougher sentences for corrupt politicians to send a message to the rest of them, I’ve been less convinced that’s as important as constantly proving there are no untouchables.

The prosecutions of powerbrokers such as Eddie Vrdolyak and Bill Cellini, despite their comparatively miniscule sentences, reverberated through the political community way more than a combined 24 years behind bars for the likes of Moreno and Medrano.

Feinerman suggested corrupt Chicago pols have been making a cost benefit analysis on the risks of getting caught and until now have believed the benefits of stealing outweighed the cost of going to jail.

I’ve been more inclined to agree with Moreno’s attorney, Richard Kling, who argued: “People continue to engage in [corrupt] activity regardless of the sentences because they think they won’t get caught.”

That’s why I say that if the corrupt pols are engaging in any kind of analysis, it’s telling them that if they’re careful and keep questionable activity a step removed from themselves, they’ll probably never be prosecuted.

Yet it’s hard for me to argue that these longer sentences won’t get the attention of those holding elective office.

Feinerman seemed to acknowledge that in part by saying he can’t do anything about who gets caught, only how they are sentenced.

As in Moreno’s case, don’t forget that many corrupt politicians also convince themselves they aren’t doing anything wrong.

“Although hard to admit that I didn’t know the difference, I now know that what I regarded as ‘politics as usual’ were illegal acts,” Moreno wrote in a letter that his other attorney, Susana Ortiz, read to the judge.

In their world, what they were doing was the norm, at least that’s how they saw it. All around them are other politicians making money with a wink here and a nod there, not everyone mind you, but enough to make some believe they’re suckers if they don’t take their share.

It’s certainly not as if I’m shedding any tears for Moreno and Medrano, who are the political equivalent of career burglars — not the most dangerous criminals in the rogues gallery but not to be underestimated either.

If Medrano were released from prison tomorrow, he’d go right back to working some kind of political hustle if he could. It’s what he knows best.

And if the FBI hadn’t wired up an informant to catch Moreno, he’d have kept on lining his pockets until he was lowered into his grave or retired to Mexico, just as he’d been doing since he arrived on the political scene — contrary to his assertions in court Wednesday that his corruption came at the end of his political career.

But if you know anything about Chicago politics, you also know that neither of these men were particularly big fish.

The most powerful Chicago politicians — the ones who also seem to be making the most money from their outside businesses — are also the most insulated.

When you take them down, that’s when you send a signal. That’s what makes the point.

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