It’s all there. Dishonest Chicago aldermen, crooked Cook County pols, sleazy suburban overlords and untoward state officials.
There’s also: infamous shoeboxes stuffed with thousands in embezzled cash, courtesy of the late Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell; the groundbreaking “Hired Truck” scandal that rocked former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration; and the Mirage Tavern sting, where the Sun-Times and Better Government Association teamed up to snare greedy municipal inspectors.
And let’s not forget the trials and tribulations of two former governors — impeached and imprisoned Rod Blagojevich, and his predecessor, George Ryan, who recently completed his hitch in the pen.
Those stories and hundreds more — in fact, a veritable encyclopedia of three-plus decades of bad behavior in Illinois political circles — come to us from longtime public corruption chroniclers Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and current University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor, and Thomas J. Gradel, a freelance writer and media consultant who worked in state government in the ’70s.
They’ve co-authored the page-turning and comprehensive “Corrupt Illinois,” a self-styled tale of “patronage, cronyism and criminality” in Illinois.
It’s a “must read” for anyone interested in a definitive account of the public thievery — the “culture of corruption” — that’s permeated the everyday workings of government, robbing regular citizens of their hard-earned tax dollars, depriving them of honest services, and eroding their civic pride.
“We do not have a few ‘rotten apples,’ Simpson and Gradel write. “We have a rotten apple barrel and a pervasive culture of corruption.”
For those who take a perverse pride in our state’s fondness for bending rules until they break, this book is the ultimate scorecard of snarky behavior.
Did you know, for example, that 33 Chicago aldermen have been convicted and sent to jail since 1973, and two others died before their trials? The authors’ tongue-in-cheek conclusion: “The federal crime rate in the City Council is higher than in the most dangerous ghetto in the city.”
A few other takeaway figures in the book: 1,913 individuals were convicted of public corruption in Illinois between 1976 and 2012. That’s 52 a year, or one per week.
Most are from the Chicago area, but several hundred engaged in nefarious activities in Downstate cities, towns and hamlets.
The authors credit much of their corruption data to the investigative work of the BGA, media watchdogs, the feds and other reformers.
Yes — it’s a mountain of malfeasance, but Simpson and Gradel aren’t ready to throw in the towel on our system of government. They argue some things are actually getting better: Recent city, county and state reforms have raised the ethics bar, and there’s much more government transparency and accountability than in the days of Democratic and Republican Machine politics. Toward the end of “Corrupt Illinois” the authors suggest additional remediation, including: More internal government watchdogs, campaign finance reform, a fair remap of legislative districts, better ballot access, and an easier voting process.
The BGA supports those measures and remains committed to combatting the “culture of corruption” through our investigations with media partners like the Sun-Times, and our independent policy initiatives.
We recognize, as “Corrupt Illinois” points out, that brazen insiders will always finds ways to subvert the rules for personal gain.
But we can’t help envisioning a time when that energy and enterprise is directed toward making Illinois a more honest, open and productive place to live and work.
That might not give Simpson and Gradel ammunition for another good book. But it might finally give the rest of us a good state.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.
Photo courtesy Society of Midland Authors and the Sun-Times