Guest Column: Fixing Illinois, part four: Corruption an enduring habit in Illinois

James D. Nowlan (left) and J. Thomas Johnson
James D. Nowlan (left) and J. Thomas Johnson

Editor’s note: The following is the fourth — and final — installment of a series drawn from the new book Fixing Illinois, by James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson. Click to view part one, part two and part three.

By James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson

Since our founding as a state, corruption in Illinois has been so commonplace it is called “The Illinois Way” of doing government business.

Our state’s reputation has been sullied and our economy harmed. It is not a matter to be passed off with a rueful chuckle.

Early Illinois Gov. Ninian Edwards (1826-30) decried the common practice in his time of treating citizens with whisky to win their votes. Those who do so, Edwards declared, “establish a school of vice and depravity in our country tending to contaminate not only the present, but succeeding generations.”

By the 1890s, Illinois had become so corrupt that honesty appeared eccentric. Streetcar magnate Charles T. Yerkes scandalized the state when he used big bribes to buy off both the Chicago City Council and the state legislature in efforts to extend his traction franchises.

In 1909, supporters of Congressman William J. Lorimer created a national sensation when they paid $100,000 in bribes of $2,500 to as many as 40 state lawmakers in Springfield, Ill., to elect Lorimer to the U.S. Senate. At the time, the new Model T Ford cost $850.

Corruption during the Al Capone era of the 1920s was breathtaking in its magnitude. The chief of police in Chicago admitted that half his force of 6,000 police was not only soliciting bribes, but also actively pushing alcohol.

The most distressing examples of public corruption came to light more recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, as a result of operations Greylord and Gambit, federal investigations into the Cook County court system.

More than 120 court officials, including 18 judges, were convicted of systematic bribery to dismiss cases against even murderers and hit men.

Between 1976 and the present, 1,828 people in Illinois have been convicted of public corruption, more than in any states but New York and California.

And that represents only the illegal corruption. Too many cases have emerged of state legislators padding, even doubling, their pensions in return for just a month’s work in government after retirement from the General Assembly. Legal, yet reprehensible.

Illinois consistently ranks among the states perceived to be most corrupt. In 2012, we took a national survey and found that one in three respondents named Illinois, unprompted, as one of the most corrupt states in the nation. Other Midwestern states were rarely so named, causing Illinois to stick out.

And perceptions hurt. A survey we conducted of 70 economic development professionals in Illinois found three in four of them believed perceptions of corruption had a negative impact on their business and job recruiting.

We believe that over the centuries, a culture of corruption had developed insidiously among too many Illinois residents. Taking advantage of government is seen as the way things are done.

Culture can be changed. Take, for examples, smoking and drinking and driving. Both were somewhat cool when we were young, but now are frowned upon by society.

We propose that the state of Illinois embark on a permanent campaign to make corruption uncool. Governors would take the lead. Consciousness-raising about integrity would take many forms, including the following:

Workshops on ethics would be held for all newly elected local and state officials;

Increased discussion of ethics in social science classes in our schools; and

Guides to ethical decision-making would be distributed widely among the public.

Illinois must begin now to transform “The Illinois Way” into a model of integrity in government.

James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson are former presidents of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois. Their book, Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State, is a primer on Illinois state government with 90-plus suggestions for change.

Posted June 4, 2014

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