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Author James L. Merriner
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Latest Scandals Hardly a Shock to City's System

The Corruption Seems Especially Disappointing After So Many Decades of Reform Struggles

Chicago Sun-Times
August 19, 2005
James L. Merriner

Why do we always act surprised? We've been around this track so many times. Here's the drill. The media break the news about a scandal of public corruption. Grand juries are impaneled. U.S. attorneys call news conferences. Indictments are issued. The scandal expands steadily. More people are indicted. More headlines blare.

Every time, reformers, judges and other good people express shock that corruption could be that widespread and that systemic.

The cases currently on point are the Hired Truck scams in City Hall and the Operation Safe Road probe of Illinois state government. In Hired Truck, 30 people have been indicted, and 23 have pleaded guilty or been convicted. Safe Road has netted 73 convictions or guilty pleas with no acquittals, and former Gov. George Ryan is scheduled to go on trial Sept. 15.

Granted, these are spectacular cases even by Chicago and Illinois standards. But the reaction to them is commonplace--dismay and moralistic hand-wringing.

The corruption seems especially disappointing after so many decades of reform struggles. Have we not enacted ethics codes, passed financial disclosure laws, placed inspectors general in public agencies? But as Walter Lippmann figured out long ago, "the traffic in privileges, which is what corruption is, has never lacked men smart enough to find ways of defeating the ingenuity of the reformers."

A federal judge expressed the theme of shock and frustration most recently regarding yet another scandal, City Hall hiring practices. Hiring was supposed to be nonpolitical after 33 years of court decrees, but it turns out that hiring actually was, what do you know, clouted.

Judge Wayne Andersen said, "When you read through the criminal complaints that were filed in this case and the pleas that were entered, the sense of violation that I think anybody who loves this city has is overwhelming."

Andersen continued "that not only was there favoritism, but . . . .probably even worse than that, basic dishonesty in dealing with the community."

Look, Chicago, we've been here before. Lamentations like the judge's could fill a sizable anthology of Chicago history. For instance, back in 1903, city attorney John F. Smulski said, "One cannot avoid a feeling of intense disgust at the inattention and the seemingly willful neglect in the performance of public duty in this city. I wonder frequently if there is anyone in Chicago who really looks after its public affairs."

Four decades later, the National Education Association investigated Chicago public schools and found corruption so shocking that "this report, in many places other than Chicago, would have resulted in a grand jury investigation."

Similar disgust and disbelief were voiced when former Ald. Larry Bloom (5th), a celebrated reformer, pleaded guilty to a corruption charge in 1988. Or when former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 1995. Or when . . . but why bother to extend the parade of transgressors?

On the other side of the fence, our politicians' defenses of the status quo likewise could stuff an anthology. A hundred years ago, a great mayor, Carter Harrison II, was running for re-election. He called on a friend to say, "Here's $15,000. The gambling lords gave this to me. Please put it in your safe. If anything happens to me before the election, give it back. Then, if I'm re-elected, I'll give it back myself."

Understandably confused, the friend said, "Well, if you're just going to give it back, why did you take it in the first place?"

"Oh," Harrison explained, "if I didn't take their money, they might think I was a reformer, and go against me." Avoiding that horrific label, the mayor was re-elected.

On the night that Richard J. Daley was first elected mayor in 1955, Ald. Paddy Bauler (43rd), holding court at his saloon at 409 W. North Ave., uttered his soon-classic motto, "Chicago ain't ready for reform." (Bauler actually said, "Chicago ain't ready for a reform mayor," but a newspaper reporter helpfully edited the remark to make it snappier.)

Many years later, Bauler said something now forgotten. Unrepentant even at the age of 87, he declared, "I'll bet you one hundred bucks to any ---damn thing you want that you will never see Chicago reformed until every son of a bitch in the town leaves the place."

Bauler was a public buffoon, a role he relished, but when you stop to think about it, his proffered wager was actually profound in its evaluation of human frailty.

So why do som many of our elected officials preside over corruption of such depth and breadth? Hmm, let's see, um . . . gosh . . . could it be that it's because we keep voting these people into office?

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All contents copyright James L. Merriner.