How do you define corruption? Is it Governor Ryan soliciting cash birthday presents from his workers, or a gaggle of aldermen carving up the City Council ward boundaries to make sure everyone can get re-elected forever?
The authors of Corrupt Illinois say both are corruption. But some activities, like gerrymandering, have long-term corrosive effects on our politics.
Tom Gradel and Dick Simpson join us this week to talk about their new book, which chronicles corrupt activities and corrupt people for almost 200 years in Illinois. It isn’t pretty.
For example, suburban mayors, police chiefs and council members.
“We think of it as the evil city that’s corrupt with the nice, clean suburbs, explains Simpson. “But that’s simply not true. We found nearly 200 cases of suburban officials who are corrupt and have been convicted by the federal government in 60 different suburbs. The suburbs seem to by vying to see how many they can increase that number to.”
And Simpson has a suggestion. “We need to create suburban inspectors general,” he asserts.
By the way, corruption in Illinois didn’t start with Rod Blagojevich and the Golden Senate Seat. Simpson and Gradel take us all the way back to the beginning.
“We did two important votes, in 1833 and again in 1837,” Simpson explains. “When we did the first vote to incorporate Chicago as a town, they cast their votes to, yes, incorporate. They were meeting in a tavern, which was very appropriate to Chicago (but it was a hotel tavern) and so when they counted the votes, they got more votes than there were citizens in the town. And then when they elected the aldermen and the trustees, they found that a number of people who voted weren’t eligible to vote. So ghost voting started in 1833 in the City of Chicago.”
And if you were appalled by the SUPES contract fiasco, how about this?
“In 1869, City Hall was a wooden structure, so it needed a paint job, just like any wooden house does,” Simpson tells us. “It was a big building. So they hired someone for $127,000 to paint City Hall. They hired this contractor. He doesn’t use paint. He used whitewash. A couple of rainstorms later it’s obvious to everyone. So they indicted fourteen aldermen and county commissioners. They convicted four of them, sent them to jail, and most of the others lost their election in 1871. We have been corrupt since we were a territory.” We probably don’t need to remind you that $127,000 was a LOT of money in 1867.
We asked Gradel whether the apparent sexual misconduct by former House Speaker Denny Hastert counts as corruption. Yes, he says, but adds that Hastert was not without his own allegations of straight-out fiscal corruption.
“He passed a bill that gave $207 million to Prairie Parkway. the Parkway cut right next to the land which he sold, and he made a $2 million profit. Sold it for $3 million, made $2 million off of it. And his ownership in that was hidden when the law was passed. It wasn’t until afterwards that people found out he owned that property,” he says.
Corrupt Illinois is a remarkable compendium of stories about corrupt people and their misdeeds. Elected officials and public servants of all ranks are listed, and it can be fascinating to go back into recent history to refresh your memory. A good example: Dan Rostenkowski. What did he do again, steal some postage stamps? So he went down for a few bucks in stamps?
“It was $50,000 to be exact,” says Gradel. Rosty would be given thousands of stamps, and he’d return them to the post office and pocket the money.
“But he also did a number of other things,” says Gradel. “He had people on the federal payroll who were cleaning his house. There’s testimony that people who worked for him on the federal payroll were made to kick back money.”
Many of us have deep concerns about the corrupting influence of big money on political campaigns. But here again, Simpson says it’s really nothing new.
“Al Capone left Chicago to go to Cicero when Big Bill Thompson was out of office for four years. He wanted Big Bill to come back, so he provided large campaign donations. He also provided election day workers,” says Simpson. Big Bill won.
But although the thread of corruption snakes through our entire history, the digital age is changing the way corruption occurs. Changing, but not reducing it. For example:
“The police have changed their pattern. They no longer take bribes from the mob to the police superintendent or the commander. Now the bribes are more retail. They’re direct from the street gangs to the local beat cop or to the special units that get assigned to drugs and to gangs,” Simpson says.
The delivery system for boodle and payoffs is no longer the bag man. It’s the contract. The authors recall a newspaper editorial that sums it up most effectively.
“Corruption was written as thievery between the lines of the contracts,” it said. Says Gradel: “Contracts have more than conflicts of interests. They have outright stealing.”