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Guest Column: No tears for Blago

September 28, 2011

By John Russell Ghrist

Next month, when former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is sentenced for political corruption, I won’t be feeling any remorse for him. I’ll still be busy trying to put my life back together for what he and his cronies did to me back in 2004. The “complete crook” is scheduled to be put away, barring any more legal maneuvers, in early October. He was convicted of trying to sell the president’s senate seat and attempting to extort money for political favors. We cannot forget his use of a state helicopter at taxpayers’ expense to fly home for dinner every night, his hiding in washrooms to avoid reporters, and his unannounced drop-ins in towns and restaurants to avoid the press. In recent months, he constantly polluted the jury pool and then complained about them being biased. He had two trials and all the due process that he deserves. We are all tired of his TV antics and games, just lock him up!

Up to 2004, I was a resourceful and energetic state employee at IDOT. I had worked in communications, land acquisition, construction and finally in public relations, the job that I always wanted and was educated for. During my last years at the state, I was responsible for sending out press releases about road construction projects, did all the voice-overs for public meeting presentations, created informative lobby displays about state projects, wrote and edited the department’s newsletter, took photographs, and served on a number of committees in addition to being a certified first aid responder.

Much earlier, I was the recorded “Voice of IDOT,” on the state’s low-power traffic stations along the Chicago Expressway System. The state and its taxpayers got all the above for $33,000 a year. I never voted in a primary election and never felt that my job needed any political affiliation to accomplish. While at the state, I earned a bachelor of science degree at Indiana University, wrote 15 local history books, and hosted a radio show.

On the weekends, I was also a shadow traffic reporter on Chicago stations WLS and WMAQ. I was an honest and hard-working employee.

In those closing days of June 2004, I was surprised to learn that the former governor’s cronies had plain-clothed police officers in the Schaumburg facility to make sure that there was no trouble as I worked through the end of my last day. I finished a vital press release on the Dan Ryan construction project that none of the new political hires knew how to do and cleaned out my storage area. The two other employees who were dumped at the same time had Republican connections and had disappeared from their desks weeks before. I stayed on and completed all my assignments.

In the ensuing months, I had no health insurance, went bankrupt and was foreclosed. Blago’s person in charge of the department, constantly hassled me about my work, and my taking of my remaining personal days for a doctor’s appointment, filing for unemployment and pursuing job interviews. My dreams of recovery quickly faded when there were no jobs to replace the good one that I had lost. Since then, I have worked at a variety of dead-end, low-paying positions, did lots of volunteering, and when finally eligible, took what pension I had earned. If it wasn’t for a few close friends, family and my softball team, I could have easily given up on life and left the area.

During that time, I was told to apply for entry-level state jobs. I did, and nothing ever happened. I got good grades on exams for other state positions and went on interviews, but was never hired again. Meanwhile, Blago appointed unqualified kids to oversee traffic signal installations and do other engineering work as overpaid liaisons. It was a clear case of “who you know” who were hired at the expense of knowledgeable and capable workers.

Recently, I learned that a couple of present state supervisors tried for a year back in 2004 to convince Springfield to hire me for open positions that I was well qualified for, but again, nothing happened. I am now convinced that I was blackballed by the ex-governor’s highly-paid political employees. I wish that I knew what I did wrong, but the only thing I can think of is that I had worked myself up the ladder, was non-political, and had a job that Blago wanted to give to one of his do-nothing friends. Those types were scattered all over the building in 2004 and were paid large salaries for little work. Appeals to the present governor, the inspector’s office, and the Equal Opportunity people again resulted in no action.

The media reported that Blago had to put up his house and his Washington, D.C., condo for bail. He is losing his home, and he caused me to lose mine. Everyone he hired made big bucks, which is the problem with government today, but no one wanted to pay me more than part-time minimum wages to keep going. Today, I live in a rental place and drive a rattling car around with 212,000 miles on it. It is not the kind of retirement that I hoped for years ago. I have kept myself busy looking for work, volunteering at two public radio stations and writing articles. I earned a better fate in life.

While all of this was going on, the local union did nothing to help all of the displaced workers that Blago kicked out and replaced with his cronies. The union meetings with the state never accomplished anything, nor did their post card protest, which was a waste of time, money and effort. In the 1970s, the union went around and signed up all the truck drivers at the maintenance yards and passed out free football tickets to get them to join. I worked hard and paid their fair share dues all those years, but the union never represented me or tried to get my job back. The union attorney failed to respond to a letter by an attorney friend asking about my situation. In other words, if one cannot pay union dues or fair share money, the union has no use for them.

So, when Blago finally gets sentenced, I won’t shed a tear for him. He and his attorneys’ courtroom stunts are now over. I hope we won’t have to hear any more of his claims that the jury, prosecutor or the judge was unfair. We won’t have to listen to his and his overpaid wife’s dirty language on the legal phone tapes that the government recorded. When he wonders what will happen to his kids, he should have thought of that first before he finally got caught. I paid child support for five kids, and my life depended on my job.

Over the years, the state has had a number of corrupt leaders who have ended up in jail. It is hoped Blago will now join them to get his just punishment for what he did to the people of Illinois and to me personally. However, the government’s job is not done yet. There are several political friends of the former governor still around who also need to be legally pursued for carrying out his plans.

My religious beliefs teach me to not hold grudges against those who have wronged me, but it is difficult to feel sorry for someone who cheated the government, the taxpayers and individuals, and then thought that they could get away with it all. At least I know in my heart, as well as those who know me, that I did an honest and good job for the state and its people. I won’t rejoice when they finally send Blago away. It will just be the end of another sad chapter of Illinois politics that this time personally affected me.

John Russell Ghrist is a resident of Rockford.

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2011, issue

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