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Illinois Really Is More Corrupt: Compared with Our Neighbors, We're No. 1!

Chicago Sun-Times
March 11, 2007
James L. Merriner, Special to the Chicago Sun-Times

MINNEAPOLIS--Minnesota thinks it can teach Illinois something about political corruption. No, really, Minnesota, by reputation the home of squeaky-clean government.

You might remember that in 1998 Minnesota elected Gov. Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party candidate and a former pro wrestler. Witty Minnesotans soon sported bumper stickers--"My governor can beat up your governor."

Some Illinoisans had pride enough to respond. "Our governor is a bigger crook than your governor," said a National Taxpayers Union of Illinois bumper sticker in 2000.

That's the spirit. We're No. 1!

Anyway, the Center for Ethical Business Cultures recently sponsored a conference, "Exploring Public Corruption--Its Causes, Consequences and Remedies," at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

One of the panelists, Joseph Friedberg, a criminal defense lawyer, wondered why they even bothered.

"The bribes that are talked about [here] would be considered insults in Chicago rather than bribes," he said. "If I specialized in defending cases of public corruption, I would starve to death."

Illinois, where few lawyers specializing in such cases starve, once staged a similar forum. Professors, attorneys and reformers discussed how crooked the government is and how we might cleanse it. The University of Illinois at Springfield sponsored "Politics and Ethics in Illinois--Past, Present and Future" in April 2003. Have you noticed our politics getting any cleaner since then?

And does it make sense to talk about the relative crookedness of states, how Illinois is slimier than Minnesota?

Oddly enough, the governmental honesty of different states can be measured and compared--sort of.

Larry J. Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, is a kind of all-purpose political commentator. He told me, "The unholy trinity of politically corrupt states are New Jersey, Illinois and Louisiana."

I asked former Gov. Jim Thompson what he thought about Sabato's Top Three. "Illinois can't hold a candle to New Jersey and Louisiana," he said indignantly. "We're poor country cousins compared to those states."

I was disappointed that "Big Jim" did not stick up for his own state. We're No. 1!

Thompson's law firm defended former Gov. George Ryan, convicted last April on corruption charges.

"Look," Thompson said, "we've had instances of corruption in Illinois for my lifetime and more. . . . You could just name them. We've had governors indicted for selling pardons, or at least accused of selling pardons. Is Illinois more corrupt than Minnesota or Wisconsin? Probably."

As it turns out, there is evidence that Illinois really is more corrupt than Minnesota or Wisconsin.

In response to the Watergate scandal, the U.S. Justice Department created a public integrity section in 1976. This unit reports to Congress every year on the number of indictments and convictions of public officials--federal, state and local--on corruption charges in each federal district court.

The tally includes only federal cases, not those brought by state and local prosecutors. But then, the feds bring an estimated 80 percent of all such cases.

The tally also does not indicate how much emphasis different U.S. attorneys place on chasing corruption cases. Maybe the federal prosecutors in Chicago are exceptionally zealous.

That said, you can add up the convictions for each state, compare the total to the state's population, and get a conviction rate per 100,000 people.

A group called the Corporate Crime Reporter developed such data for 1993-2002. I have updated the numbers for 1996-2005, using 2005 population estimates, the most recent figures available.

By this measure, North Dakota (North Dakota?) is the most corrupt state with a rate of .0848, reflecting a total of just 54 convictions but a population of only 637,000. Illinois ranks ninth in the nation with a rate of .0446 (with 569 convictions and 12.8 million people).

Louisiana is the second most corrupt; New Jersey the eleventh. Minnesota is the fifth least corrupt; Wisconsin the seventeenth.

So we're not No. 1, but hardly "country cousins" either.

I asked Sabato, assuming that Illinois and New Jersey are among the most corrupt states, why is that? What is different about them?

"Corruption is nurtured by the political culture . . ." he said. "Through the generations, corruption has become strongly associated with politics [and] people just expect the two to go together like love and marriage."

Let's hear from a real insider. Richard Juliano, former deputy chief of staff for Ryan, spoke at the Minnesota ethics conference.

If not the unsung hero of Operation Safe Road probe of Ryan's terms as secretary of state and governor, Juliano comes off looking better than most of the other 75 people who were convicted or pleaded guilty in that investigation. He cooperated with the prosecution even before being indicted and was sentenced to four years' probation and a $10,000 fine.

Juliano said Ryan's operatives were "conditioned" to "consider all these [corrupt acts] to be minimal transgressions . . . as long as the media didn't find out about it, in which case you have a political problem, it would be OK. . . . the goal was to win the election. As long as we win the election, everything else will take care of itself."

To quote Sabato once more on the culture of corruption: it "depends heavily on what average voters will tolerate from their elected officials."

The feds are vigorously investigating the administrations of Gov. Blagojevich and Mayor Daley. We just re-elected them by landslide margins.

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