Editor's Note: Scholars Weigh in on Whether Chicagoland Deserves its Reputation of Corruption

Nov 1, 2012

Dana Heupel
Credit NPR Illinois
The Chicago area is the most corrupt region in the nation, according to a research paper presented at a recent statewide ethics conference, and Illinois is the third most corrupt state.

Since 1976, 1,828 people have been convicted of public corruption in the state, a total that ranks only behind California (2,345) and New York (2,522), the paper shows. What’s more, 1,531 of those corruption convictions — or nearly 84 percent — occurred in the federal courts’ Northern District of Illinois, which encompasses Chicago and its suburbs and exurbs. It is the federal court district with the highest number of corruption convictions during that period.

But corruption is only a byproduct of larger problems, says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and now the political science department chairman at the University of Illinois Chicago. The real problems, he told those attending the Ethics and Reform Symposium on Illinois Government in Chicago in late September, are political parties, patronage and nepotism.

“It’s ingrained in the political system,” said Simpson, a primary author of the research paper, Chicago and Illinois, Leading the Pack in Corruption, “and until we replace the political power of machine politics in the 21st century, we’re not going to curb corruption.”

The ethics symposium, titled “What’s In The Water In Illinois?,” was sponsored by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, along with the Joyce Foundation and the Union League Club of Chicago, where it was held. It was attended by good-government adherents from throughout the state and the Midwest. Along with various speakers, about a dozen scholars presented academic papers dealing with government ethics and reform.

One reason why Illinois’ corruption numbers are so high, Simpson said, is because it has about 7,000 taxing districts, ranging from state, county and city governments to special districts that provide such services as mosquito abatement. “That’s a lot of places to steal money,” he said.

Illinois comes in seventh in convictions per capita, Simpson’s paper says, with 1.42 for every 10,000 residents. The District of Columbia leads that pack with 16.02, followed by five states with smaller populations than Illinois: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, South Dakota and North Dakota, with rates that range from 1.89 to 1.75 corruption convictions per 10,000 residents. Illinois ranks highest among larger states, with New York (1.30) and Pennsylvania (1.23) not far behind.

“For sure, Illinois is corrupt,” Dartmouth professor Richard Winters writes in his paper, Unique or Typical: Political Corruption in Illinois, which he also presented at the symposium. “But it is corrupt just like all other large states, with many governments, with a heterogeneous population and where it is difficult, and in some sense not worthwhile, for its citizens to exercise greater civic control. Illinois: Meet New York, Florida, Virginia and Maryland — you are of a ‘kind.’”

As one measure of state corruption, Winters uses the number of convictions per 1,000 elected officials. Illinois ranks 25th on that list, though he said that could indicate that the high number of elected officials in some states tends to “veil public malefecators,” leaving a higher rate of undetected corruption.

Overall, Winters writes, “the conclusion of the data analysis is inescapable. … Illinois is not uniquely corrupted. In fact, it is quite ordinary.”

The public perception — or misperception — that Illinois is more corrupt than other states, Winters writes, could stem partly from the high-profile convictions of governors and other top officials. “Illinois citizens are convinced that their state is more corrupt than others, and there is no way that the simple facts (or even the complex facts) of the case can convince them otherwise. ‘My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!’”

Simpson proposes several potential ways to combat corruption, including allowing citizens to adopt ethics reforms by referendum, enhancing coverage of existing laws and ordinances and banning all gifts to elected officials and public employees except those from family members.

Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, and Cynthia Canary, former executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, also presented a paper, Lessons Learned: What the Success and Failures of Recent Reform Efforts Tell Us About the Prospects for Political Reform in Illinois. They believe that “key changes in the laws that govern Illinois politics would significantly reduce both actual corruption and the appearance of corruption.” In general, those would include “making it more risky for individuals to engage in political corruption … making governmental actions and information more transparent, regulating and limiting the roles that money plays in elections and policy making, and raising the ethical standards and expectations of public officials and the general public in Illinois.”

However, writer and editor James Merriner contends that history has shown that many such efforts have failed to reduce corruption or undue political influence. “Forty years of experience tells us that campaign reforms have failed,” he told attendees at the symposium. 

“Reformers have been fixated on the costs of campaigns,” Merriner writes in his paper, Undoing Reform: Personal PAC v. Illinois State Board of Elections, “but not on the costs of reforms. Campaign financial limits carry costs both procedural and substantive. The 2009 Illinois reform law, itself fundamentally flawed, has already been vitiated by the judiciary and the legislature. To the extent that campaign-finance controls remain, they protect incumbents and fail to advance the values of equality, democracy, freedom of speech, probity or trust in government. The reformist struggle to cleanse government of corruption must find other avenues.”

Merriner cautioned the group: “If the end is anti-corruption, we need to rethink the means. … It’s time to shoot that sacred cow.”

Simpson stresses, however, that something must be done, if not for ethical reasons, at least for financial ones.

“Corruption is not funny, and it is not free,” he writes in his paper. “It costs the taxpayers of Illinois more than $500 million per year. Governor [Rod] Blagojevich’s well-publicized corruption antics led to a lowering of the state’s bond rating, which cost the state more than $20 million during its last bond issue. Corruption also takes time and resources away from police and prosecutors. Blagojevich’s first trial cost tens of millions of dollars to investigate and prosecute, and after a hung jury resulted in a retrial, the taxpayers footed the bill for Blagojevich’s new attorneys. And so it goes — in a time of deep budget deficits, we are wasting taxpayer money and raising taxes and fees on citizens who can ill afford to pay for corruption any longer.”

All of the papers presented at the symposium can be read in full at www.paulsimoninstitute.org.

Illinois Issues, November 2012