By Eva Hofmann
The year 2020 stands out as one of the most significant in “the long, startling saga of political and public corruption” in Chicago and across Illinois, according to a new report published by political scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
“The sheer number and political stature of the Illinois elected officials and business leaders who were implicated, indicted, or convicted in 2020 is staggering,” said former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson, UIC political science professor and the report’s principal author.
In addition to Simpson, coauthors are Marco Rosaire Rossi, a UIC political Science PhD graduate, and writer Thomas J. Gradel, a former political consultant. The report is titled Corruption Continues Through the Covid-19 Pandemic.
“The fallout from these Federal probes will continue to generate headlines and attract voters’ attention as we approach the midterm Congressional and State elections in November and the elections next February and March for Chicago mayor and alderpersons,” said Simpson.
Major corruption episodes of 2020
Following are some of the 2020 political corruption episodes that Simpson said voters will be thinking about during the political campaigns.
Commonwealth Edison (Com-Ed) admitted it bribed House Speaker Michael Madigan over a nine-year period to get him to help pass beneficial legislation that will cost ratepayers millions of dollars. Madigan’s former staffers’ and political allies’ names appeared in search warrants, and a Federal grand jury indicted some of them as the investigation continued throughout 2020 and beyond.
The Federal government indicted former ComEd CEO Anna Pramaggiore, as well as three ComEd lobbyists, for bribery.
Fidel Marquez, a former ComEd executive, pled guilty to one count of bribery conspiracy.
As for Madigan, previously considered one of the most powerful politicians in Illinois, he resigned as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party once the investigation began. The probe also led to his resigning from the speaker’s post and from his House seat before a Federal grand jury indicted him this past April.
The Federal government indicted William Helm, a former deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, who began negotiating a plea deal.
The Federal government also indicted Jeffrey Tobolski, Cook County commissioner and former mayor of suburban McCook, for conspiring to pay bribes in the SafeSpeed red light camera scandal. Tobolski pled guilty to extortion conspiracy and failing to pay taxes.
Both Helm and Tobolski had been tied to former state Senator Martin Sandoval, who resigned and pled guilty to Federal bribery and tax fraud charges in January after taking more than $250,000 in bribes from SafeSpeed LLC as the company’s protector in the Senate and to help enable Safe-Speed to install red light cameras in Chicago suburbs. Suburban Crestwood mayor Louis Petra resigned following bribery and fraud charges in the same SafeSpeed red light camera scandal.
Federal prosecutors indicted Omar Maani, a partner in the red-light camera firm, for bribery and conspiracy.
State Senator Terrance Link pled guilty to federal tax fraud charges.
In Federal court, former 11th Ward Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson was found guilty of income tax fraud. He resigned from office and awaits sentencing at this writing.
History of corruption in Chicago
The UIC report showed that, while indictments and other legal actions were accumulating in Chicago and Illinois in 2020, total Federal criminal convictions for public corruption continued declining from their 1970s and 1980s peaks, both for Illinois and around the country. Based on U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 1976 through 2020, however, Illinois remains the third most corrupt state in the nation, while the Northern District of Illinois—Chicago and its suburbs—still ranks as the most corrupt metropolitan area in the country.
To what does the city owe this dubious distinction?
According to Simpson, it stems from machine politics, which dates to the 1871 Chicago Fire, although corruption cases arose before that time. “When you have a political machine that trades City jobs for favors and uses corrupt contracts for businessmen, that builds a certain kind of pattern,” he said.
The report states that 2020 rivals 1983, the year the Operation Greylord probe was revealed. Conducted jointly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Postal Service, Chicago Police Department, and Illinois State Police, Operation Greylord investigated corruption in the Cook County judiciary. The FBI named the investigation “Operation Greylord” after the curly wigs worn by British judges.
“Now people expect to pay off politicians to get zoning changes and to bribe judges to avoid DUI charges,” Simpson said. “This pattern becomes permanent, and we can only change it with great effort.”
“There is a culture of corruption, obviously,” said David Greising, president and CEO of the Better Government Association (BGA).
The report also compares 2020 with 2003, when the Federal government indicted former Governor George Ryan for racketeering and obstruction of justice; 2008, when a Federal grand jury indicted Governor Rod Blagojevich; and 2009, when the Illinois General Assembly impeached Blagojevich and removed him from office.
“There are consequences to this level of corruption,” said Jonathan Peck, president and CEO of CivicLab Inc. “Taxpayers are paying for this at a time when we’re struggling with inflation, and all these things are in our ecosystem.”
Stopping the spread
“After scores of Federal prosecutions in recent decades, the general public is beginning to demand that their elected officials pass effective reforms,” said Simpson. “Voters, too, are more willing to consider the impact and cost of corruption when they vote. And, it is likely that allegations of corruption and which candidates have the strongest and most credible anti-corruption campaign pledges will affect the upcoming elections.”
The BGA’s Greising cited weak ethics laws as contributing to a corruption culture. “That is why the BGA is supporting Ald. Michelle Smith‘s proposal for a strengthened ethics ordinance,” he said.
Peck’s CivicLab focuses on training to produce informed citizens. “Part of the solution is getting people more involved at the hyper local level,” he said. “We need more people to step up and more leaders to say enough is enough.”
In discussing the city’s corruption issues, Peck recalled the Frederick Douglass quote, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
“Our endurance in Chicago is long,” said Peck. “We have a lot of endurance for corruption. We elect these people, and it speaks volumes about what we’re willing to put up with. It’s a shame to allow corruption to fester.
“TIFs have been attached to some of this corruption,” Peck added. “We know Alderman [Edward] Burke got indicted, and that was connected to a TIF scheme. We need to end these types of mechanisms used to prop up people’s greed. We need to build and strengthen public services in the city.”
A copy of the report, Corruption Continues Through the Covid-19 Pandemic, is available at https://tinyurl.com/Corrupt14. The DOJ Public Integrity Report is at https://www.justice.gov/criminal-pin/file/1479131/download. More information is available in Gradel and Simpson›s book, Corrupt Illinois, Patronage, Cronyism and Criminality.