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Chicago’s most crooked suburbs? You could probably name them — and you did

For some reason, the same towns have been having the same problems for decades, despite federal investigations that try to throw the bums out.

Community activists and religious leaders leave a court hearing on their lawsuit seeking to rid west suburban Stone Park of strip clubs in 2016. File Photo.
Community activists and religious leaders leave a court hearing on their lawsuit seeking to rid west suburban Stone Park of strip clubs in 2016.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

When federal agents swept through the Cook County suburbs last week, it almost seemed like a variation on the old cop movie cliché of: “Round up the usual suspects.”

Based on their reputations alone, if not necessarily any current alleged misbehavior by local officials, the towns that we know were visited — Lyons, Summit, Crestwood and McCook — would certainly all belong in a lineup of suspected crooked places.

It’s not the places themselves that are corrupt, of course. It’s the people. And only a small percentage of the people at that.

Yet for some reason, the same towns have been having the same problems for decades, despite federal investigations that try to throw the bums out, even as reform regimes are elected and replaced.

If only they’d hauled in Cicero for questioning, it would have felt like we were back in the 1970s. Or 1980s. Or 1920s, for that matter. On the bright side, there’s still time for that.

It all got me to thinking, could we create a list of the most crooked towns in the Chicago area?

Naturally, I did what any newspaper columnist would do these days to research such a story.

I asked my Facebook friends.

Again, we’re talking reputations here. Reputations are mostly based on history. Reputations can be outdated, although in most of these cases, I can point to federal prosecutions or media investigations of recent vintage.

Sheriff’s police investigate allegations of gambling and vice at a Cicero bar in 1964. File Photo.
Sheriff’s police investigate allegations of gambling and vice at a Cicero bar in 1964. File Photo.
Sun-Times archives.

As expected, the aforementioned five towns received their share of mentions.

So did Chicago Heights, Stone Park and Calumet City.

Harvey, Dixmoor and Ford Heights.

Melrose Park, Elmwood Park and Rosemont.

Bridgeview, Schiller Park and Niles.

This is not a ranking.

One guy suggested putting Evanston on the list, but I’m pretty sure he was just trying to cause trouble.

Evanston would not make my list. Neither would Naperville or River Forest, which somebody else picked.

I’m on the fence about Berwyn, which also was named, and Forest Park, which wasn’t. Not really sure what’s going on these days in Country Club Hills and Willow Springs, both of which would have deserved a mention not so long ago.

Somebody wanted to reach across the border into Indiana to select Gary, in which case I don’t know how you can leave out East Chicago and Hammond.

Another guy said corruption is everywhere; it’s only a matter of degree. That’s a valid point, except there are more than 130 towns in Cook County alone, and the majority of them don’t really belong in this conversation.

The city of Chicago, I recognize, is the mother ship of local political corruption. But we already knew that, so why belabor the point.

Federal agents remove computer equipment and document boxes from the Southwest Side office of 14th Ward Alderman last year. File Photo.
Federal agents remove computer equipment and document boxes from the Southwest Side office of 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke last year. File Photo.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Maybe we could pick out individual city wards, but the folks at 219 S. Dearborn already seem to be doing a pretty good job of that right now without our prompting.

Nobody has been charged publicly yet as a result of the recent suburban raids.

As you probably understand, those investigators don’t just pick out towns with a reputation for corruption and send in the troops. Nor do they select a politician who “everybody knows” is corrupt and throw all their resources at him.

They follow specific leads. They go where the evidence takes them. Right now, they seem to be going in a lot of directions at once, which helps make the point that there are a lot of places worthy of their attention.

Judith Petrucci
Judith Petrucci stands in front of one of the former strip joints she spent 14 years fighting before finally becoming Lyons village president in 1989. File Photo.
Sun-Times archives.

I don’t want to insult all the people living in these towns, who often feel helpless against the entrenched political machines that oppress them. Still, there’s a lot of truth in the saying that in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.

It’s been 30 years since the voters of Lyons drew national attention by throwing out the leaders that had allowed prostitution and gambling to flourish, electing reformers who finally got rid of the strip clubs and late night bars.

But 10 years later, another mayor of Lyons, Kenneth Getty was sent to prison for his involvement in a bid rigging scheme.

Now his son Chris Getty, the current mayor, is under the microscope following surprise visits by federal agents to village hall and to his insurance agency.

Maybe there’s something in the water.