Stateline Story

Illinois Governors Can't Shake Bad Reputations

  • September 27, 2005
  • By Daniel C. Vock

When Rod Blagojevich told Illinois voters in 2002 that, if elected governor, he would "end business as usual," the voters knew exactly what he meant.

He was alluding to the state's sordid history of legislators, judges, congressmen, aldermen and, yes, governors hauled into court on corruption charges.

But now, in his third year as governor, Blagojevich finds himself fighting off accusations that threaten to drag him, too, into the annals of Illinois scandal.

"The believability factor in public officials is at an all-time low since I've been around, and that's been six governors," said Chicago public relations expert Thom Serafin, who has worked for several embattled public officials.

Recent headlines show why voters may have an especially dim view of Illinois governors.

Even those with otherwise squeaky clean reputations have been dogged by stories of close allies accused of bribery, extortion and fraud.

In the same week Blagojevich was linked by media accounts to an alleged pension investment scheme, his predecessor, George H. Ryan, was gearing up for a long-anticipated public corruption trial in Chicago.

Opening arguments in the trial are expected to start this week. Federal prosecutors assert that Ryan orchestrated sweetheart deals on leases and steered state contracts to his friends in exchange for gifts and money to his friends and relatives.

Ryan's high-caliber defense team comes from the law firm of Winston & Strawn, which is headed by James R. Thompson. Thompson, the longest-serving governor in Illinois history, picked Ryan as his lieutenant governor in 1983. Thompson's firm also represents Blagojevich.

Thompson, though, launched his career in Illinois politics as the U.S. attorney in Chicago by taking down another former governor, Otto Kerner. Kerner was found guilty in 1973 of accepting discounted racetrack stock in exchange for giving the track's biggest owner preferable treatment.

When Thompson took the helm of the state, he replaced Dan Walker, who served between 1973 and 1977. Walker eventually went to federal prison for bank fraud that occurred after he left office.

In 2006, Blagojevich could face an electoral challenge from Republican Jim Edgar, who served as governor between Thompson and Ryan. Edgar left office as an enormously popular executive in 1999 and has repeatedly turned down invitations to get back into politics ever since.

Last month, one of Blagojevich's top campaign operatives attacked Edgar's record in a political newsletter in an apparent attempt to keep the former governor on the sidelines. Among other things, he challenged Edgar's ability to run on "ethics" because of a scandal that erupted on Edgar's watch and sent some of his largest campaign contributors to prison.

That scandal involved a computer consulting company that paid money and gave gifts to officials at the Department of Public Aid in return for favorable contracts. The federal probe fizzled after a top agency official was acquitted, but it was still an embarrassment for Edgar. His chief of staff was named as an unindicted co-conspirator, and Edgar became the first sitting governor in 75 years to testify in a criminal trial.

The recent attack on Edgar came just weeks before Joseph Cari, former finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, pleaded guilty on Sept. 15 to taking part in an extortion scheme that targeted investment firms seeking to manage state pension fund assets.

According to Cari's plea, a member of the board overseeing teacher pension funds demanded that an investment fund hire an unnamed consultant. That consulting company, in turn, would donate money to a campaign or charity run by "Public Official A."

The plea stated that Public Official A orchestrated the arrangement through two close associates. According to the plea, Cari told the investment firm he represented that the consulting arrangement was "political, and this was how Public Official A handled patronage."

Federal prosecutors have not identified the official, but several news organizations, citing confidential sources, fingered Blagojevich as Public Official A.

Blagojevich defended himself at an unrelated news conference shortly after the plea was released. "I have no involvement whatsoever in anything surrounding the alleged corruption at the Teachers Retirement System, and nobody close to me does either," he said.

"We don't operate that way. No one who is associated with me operates that way, and, if they did, they understand I wouldn't tolerate that for a split second," Blagojevich added.

The episode is the latest earth-shaking allegation in Illinois politics brought out by the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, known nationally for heading the investigation into who leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame's name.

Fitzgerald currently has investigators pursuing corruption at Chicago's City Hall, in Cook County government and in the administrations of two governors - Ryan and Blagojevich, pointed out Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. The group tries to limit the influence of money in politics.

The corruption that's being exposed "is a train wreck that seems to be happening at all levels of government," she said.

And the notion seems to be deeply engrained for those in power in Illinois, Canary added. "Fitzgerald's batting record is 1.000, but people keep doing it."

Charles N. Wheeler III, the director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Illinois residents have a different view of government than in other states.

Illinois voters, he said, tend to view politics as a "marketplace" where competing interests, including politicians, vie for their own benefit.

But that approach only goes so far. One of the reasons Ryan is so reviled by voters, Wheeler said, is that the graft under his watch proved so tragic.

The federal investigation of Ryan's office started following an accident caused by a truck driver, who obtained his license with a bribe. The driver failed to secure a taillight, which then fell off his rig. A van driven by a Chicago minister hit the loose auto part, which punctured the gas tank, caused an explosion and killed six of the minister's children.

That story shows the cost of corruption can be measured in terms of lives as well as wasted tax dollars, Wheeler said.

"The tolerance level," he explained, "is becoming less as people realize there are certain costs associated with having a government where everyone's looking out for themselves.”