How Corrupt is Chicago?

Daniel Hertz

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich with a portrait of him painted by courtroom artist Verna Sadock after a day of jury selection for his re-trial in April 2011. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Illinois residents—especially those in the Chicago area—have long believed that they live in one of the most corrupt corners of America, and the rest of the country has tended to agree. In a decade with some spectacular political flameouts (New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s relationship with a high-priced call girl; South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s discovery of his true love in Argentina), Illinois managed to outdo them all by sending two governors to jail—including one for trying to sell an appointment to President Obama’s old Senate seat. For their part, Republicans accuse the President of “Chicago-style politics,” and no further explanation is needed. So a report last week by professor Dick Simpson and other researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago didn’t shock too many people. Tallying federal corruption convictions since 1976, they found that their hometown was the most corrupt in the country. A closer look at the paper, Corrupt Chicago,” however, raises more questions than it answers—something its authors freely admit. Despite the periodic media frenzies over high-profile corruption cases, it turns out that there is surprisingly little publicly available information about the extent to which, and in what ways, crooked public officials are a problem for Chicago or the rest of the country. And the information that does exist is often ambiguous.
“The first thing to remember,” Tom Gradel, one of the study’s co-authors, told In These Times, “is that the corruption statistics do not make any distinction between the governor being convicted and a guy at the post office who steals checks out of the mail. They each count as one.” Without the ability to make those distinctions—which are left out of the Department of Justice reports the UIC study was based on—Gradel says, “it’s very hard to make a statement about the level of corruption.”  What’s more, the conviction totals are woefully incomplete, because they don’t include cases that, for whatever reason, never made it to federal court. “If somebody was tried in state court, that doesn’t show up,” says Gradel. “If someone was allowed to resign [or] if someone wasn’t caught, that doesn’t show up.” Cobbling together those cases is extremely difficult, because unlike the federal government, Illinois and most other states do not issue any comprehensive reports about corruption prosecutions. Instead, a small army of inspectors general, each responsible for turfs ranging from the Chicago Public Schools to the governor’s office, compile their own lists of wrongdoing—many of which are not made public. Without that data, researchers have to rely on newspaper and other media reports. The UIC team is working on a follow-up study based on those sources, but that poses problems of its own, Gradel says. “The likelihood that some clerk who took a hundred dollar bribe, that that story will get in the paper, is slim.” Perhaps as a result, another corruption study released last week by the State Integrity Investigation, a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, took an entirely different approach. Rather than looking at convictions, that report focused on laws in areas like lobbying disclosure, internal auditing and ethics enforcement to determine the extent to which a state is “at risk” of corruption. Illinois performed relatively well by those metrics, earning the highest rating on 70% of corruption risk indicators—with one major caveat: while many state laws were considered “Strong,” the report generally gave lower scores to the implementation of those laws in practice. A new, more in-depth version of the report to be published on March 19th may give more details on those discrepancies. In any case, there is wide agreement, even among researchers frustrated with the limited available data, that Chicago suffers from a culture of corruption.” In response, in late 2011 Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an Ethics Reform Task Force charged with developing a slate of recommendations to clean up city government. Brian Gladstein, the executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, testified before the Task Force on February 15th. He argued that campaign finance reform—modeled on New York City’s public financing system, which matches small donations ($175 or less)  to publicly-financed candidates at a rate of six to one—is the city’s best shot at getting clean. “We’re more concerned about how we can change the system so there isn’t an opportunity for corruption,” explains Gladstein. “If we were able to create a system like New York’s, it will change that climate from the get-go.” About the UIC study, he says “it’s the closest [to a comprehensive report on corruption] that we’ve seen,” but adds that it misses “everyday conflicts of interest that we are concerned with as well.” The authors of the UIC report have their own ideas about what should come out of the Task Force. These include strengthening the power of the City Council’s Investigator General—who currently can only open investigations if a whistleblower has signed an affidavit, opening themselves up to retaliation—banning gifts to public officials and creating stiffer penalties for employees found inappropriately receiving two or more salaries. With the Task Force set to deliver its recommendations in April or May, after another public hearing on March 12th, Gladstein says it’s too early to say whether Emanuel is serious about fighting corruption. He gives the mayor mixed reviews so far: Early in his tenure, he issued a series of executive orders attempting to curb conflicts of interest; but he has also resisted pushes to make city government as transparent as many reformers want. This summer, according to Gladstein, “will be a telling time. If the [task force’s recommendations] are just a report on a shelf, that will be very telling.” If, on the other hand, those recommendations are on a path to becoming law, it will be cause for hope. Even with those reforms, however, there may still be no way to get an accurate picture of the costs of corruption, or tell if those costs are rising or falling. State Representative Fred Crespo, a Democrat from Chicago’s northwest suburbs, recently introduced a bill to make more of the state’s ethics investigations available to the public. But there is no indication that any kind of unified, comprehensive report on corruption investigations is forthcoming from state or city government. Chicago may soon get new anti-corruption laws, in other words, but it’s not clear how anyone will know if they’re working.
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Daniel Hertz is a senior fellow at City Observatory, an urban public policy think tank.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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