Upside of Illinois corruption is Illinois shame and reform

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In the aftermath of the scandal of former governor Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois General Assembly enacted a number of good government reforms.

The political epitaph for recently defeated Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn aptly summarizes Illinois’ rich history of corruption.

He may have been ineffective, local wags said, but at least he was never indicted.

Executive innocence is not to be taken for granted in Illinois, where four of the last nine governors have gone to prison and a former secretary of state, Paul Powell, once stashed hundreds of thousands of dollars in a shoe box, briefcases and strongboxes. Nobody had a clue until after he died in 1970.

In fact, from 1976 to 2012, 1,913 public officials wound up behind bars after trials in the federal Northern District of Illinois, according to an analysis by longtime political observers Dick Simpson and Tom Gradel.

That’s the third-highest public corruption count in the country, after the District of Columbia and Louisiana.


How is it, then, that Illinois fared relatively well in a 2012 ranking of state government transparency and accountability, the State Integrity Investigation, published by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International?

The survey awarded Illinois state government a seemingly mid-range grade of C, but that was the 11th highest mark in the country. Louisiana came in 15th, with a grade of C-. New Jersey, another state with a long history of corruption, topped the list with a B+.

The explanation lies in both action and reaction. In Illinois, corruption traditionally has stemmed from the intersection of the state’s fabled machine-based political culture, rooted in Chicago, with the state’s sheer volume of governmental units. This has created fertile ground for the kind of wacky scandals that have garnered national and even international attention. But the shame of the scandals has led, in turn, to aggressive state-level reforms, earning Illinois its comparatively high anti-corruption grade.

Case in point: In the aftermath of the Gov. Rod Blagojevich fiasco, state legislators established new campaign finance limits, overhauled state procurement procedures, and created a path to recall a misbehaving governor, the State Integrity Investigation found.

That doesn’t mean all is good in Illinois. On a number of specific good government issues, such as public access to information and judicial accountability, Illinois earned high marks for laws on the books, but far lower scores for the effectiveness of those laws.

And a number of developments since the 2012 State Integrity Investigation was conducted might call into further question the state’s anti-corruption performance.

Consider, for example, the category of Political Financing.

As a result in part of the post-Blagojevich reforms, the state received a score of 90 percent for its regulations governing the financing of individual political candidates. Yet, in a step backward, the state Legislature responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 Citizens United decision on campaign financing by passing a bill that year that removed contribution limits for certain types of political action committees.

And so the fight goes on for a politically cleaner Illinois, with no one seeing a quick turnaround.

Complicating the task for Illinois is the unfortunate fact that it is the most highly bureaucratized state in the country, according to a Better Government Association analysis. Illinois has nearly 7,000 stand-alone units of government, by far the most in the nation.

All these units of government, many of which are quite small and subjected to little outside oversight, are fertile ground for corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness, says Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

“Outcomes are dependent on personal relationships rather than value,” Redfield said.

An updated State Integrity Investigation report is due out this fall. It’s too early to know how Illinois will score this time around, but the lack of enthusiasm for reform initiatives in the current legislative session doesn’t give cause for optimism. Most good-govern measures have stalled in committee or been passed by just one chamber.

Reformers in Springfield must contend as well with a broader challenge not subject to legislative fixes: public cynicism.

But David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, says he believes the public has tired of the corruption.

“The politicians can’t hold this off forever. I think over time, stuff will start to change,” he said.

“I’m hopeful, anyway.”

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, a lecturer at Columbia College in Chicago, also is associated with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C.

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