The following article originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 7, 2009.
The national media has spoken, Illinois, and it has said that you’re not really all that corrupt — a backhanded compliment for a state with a long, proud heritage of political corruption.
On Dec. 10, USA Today ranked the state the 18th most corrupt in the nation. Soon after, the Dec. 14 New York Times calculated crookedness three ways, placing Illinois at 7th, 22nd, and tied for 10th. All rankings focused on number of convictions.
However, Illinois’ corruption is not a matter of a few indicted or convicted individuals. It is a way of life, a perk of power, protected by well-established machinery that fends off legal consequences. Illinois politicians who do get caught — and those have always been a small minority — clearly do not know how or do not want to use that machinery.
Chicago has spawned hundreds of corrupt politicians over the last century. Mayors from mafia puppet “Big Bill” Thompson (R) to the Machine Bosses Daley and son (D), along with hundreds of other city officials in Chicago have come under fire for abusing their power and lining their pockets. Most have never been indicted.
Outside of the big city, corruption has been uncovered in Rosemont, Harvey, Niles, Cicero, East St. Louis and small towns and cities throughout Illinois. Wrongdoing at the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, the Cook County Board and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department is almost common knowledge. In addition to multiple convictions, Springfield boasts orphaned facts and constant rumors of scandals implicating both high and low political powers. Again, most involved in these activities are not punished.
Obviously, Illinois’ conviction rate lags behind that of other states only because Illinois excels at avoiding indictment. In this state, corruption is the lifeblood of mayors, aldermen, ward bosses, city inspectors, governors, judges, state representatives and senators, lobbyists, low-level staff, pages and clerks. Rarely does anyone get caught, as even those on the losing end of the deal are resigned to play the game. Those who are caught are the few too arrogant, too dense or too reckless to make the right friends and avoid the wrong enemies.
In Illinois politics, as in the old saying, power corrupts. The political machinery is designed to grant access to personal power and wealth while shielding from accountability, attracting crooked individuals and pulling down well-intentioned public servants who must play the game to be effective. Alleged legislative solutions such as campaign finance reform and ethics reform never stop corruption — they depend on oversight by people themselves vulnerable to corruption.
The only way to stop it is to shrink the size and power of government. Dismantle the vast machine of government-as-usual, strip it to a small core by cutting departments, cutting taxes and imposing new constitutional limits.
The more this is done, the fewer opportunities exist for favors to exchange hands, reducing the chances for corruption to flourish. This is the only way to successfully address both the clumsy corruption recognized in the national media and the larger body of malfeasance that continues to thrive beneath the radar.
Jeffrey Babbitt is a senior analyst for Illinois Taxpayer Education Foundation.
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