Paul Greenberg / December 16, 2008

Another Kind of Corruption

The headline on the news story read: “Corruption called way of politics in Illinois.” This is news? In terms of sheer notoriety, popular legend and just general sleaziness, the Land of (gulp!) Lincoln may yet surpass even Louisiana, which has been called our only Mediterranean state.

The competition for the less than coveted title of Most Corrupt State in the Union is fierce, but if Illinois hasn’t taken the lead in light (or in the darkness) of its latest governor’s indictment, it’s definitely in the running.

If the charges against him hold up, The Hon. Rod Blagojevich, whom a friend of mine described as looking like a malignant Andy Hardy, would be the second governor of Illinois in a row to do a stretch.

I tried to remember how many governors of Illinois have served time in recent decades, and got up to three (Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan) before losing count. And that doesn’t take into account officials lower down on the ticket, like the legendary secretary of state (Paul Powell) who used shoeboxes to stash his cash instead of a Swiss bank account.

A whole encyclopedia could be devoted to corruption just in Chicago, that toddlin’ town, where they do things they don’t do on Broadway, although after Eliot Spitzer, the Empire State is definitely a contender in Illinois’ rotten league. One mayor of Chicago who wasn’t named Daley – Harold Washington, whose birthday was April 15th – celebrated every year by not filing an income tax return.

Chicago occasionally makes news in national presidential elections, as when its customarily late returns were given credit for Jack Kennedy’s victory in 1960. To bring matters up to date, Barack Obama’s political rise was linked to the now notorious Tony Rezko, friend and fixer. The more things change in Chicago, the more they seem to remain the same.

If the wiretaps are correct, this latest governor of Illinois to face charges may have been even more flagrante than usual in his delicto. Maybe the most striking charge against him is that the Hon. Blago threatened at one point to end the state’s $8 million grant to the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago if its CEO didn’t put together a $50,000 donation for him. A children’s hospital.

That would seem to be a new low for even an Illinois pol, a breed that does have its code, however strange. Like making sure the snow is removed. Before now, even the most avaricious pol in that state was never accused of extorting favors from kids, at least not crippled ones. Can this be another tradition this modern age has abandoned? We’ll find out at trial.

But there are always those who can’t wait for a court to deliver its verdict, and assume that indictment is synonymous with conviction. Like the oh-so-clean attorney general of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, who has asked the state’s Supreme Court to kick its present occupant out of the governor’s office without the formality of an actual trial. The way she figures it, he’s disqualified for his high office because of disability. She’s using a law intended to cover governors who develop some mental or physical disability to cover the Hon. Blago’s problem – the widespread contempt his indictment has brought him and which, she claims, makes him unable to govern.

So she’s invoking the Alice in Wonderland rule: “Sentence first – verdict afterward.” So much for what used to be called the presumption of innocence. If the nominally honorable governor of Illinois develops a sufficient sense of shame to resign his office, that would be one thing. To punish him pre-trial would be an unacceptable other.

Madigan’s reasoning brings to mind a conversation between a late legislator of the old school here in Arkansas and an earnest young lawyer who made the mistake of trying to reason with him. “Look here,” said Earnest Young Lawyer, “we can all agree that everybody deserves to be considered innocent until proven guilty, right?” To which veteran lawmaker replied, with some force: “Not if they’re guilty, they don’t!” Illinois’ attorney general may be the latest to adopt a variation of that unanswerable illogic.

If a governor who’s been convicted only in the court of public opinion is to be punished without waiting for mere due process, then something more important than money has been lost: a fundamental principle of American (and for that matter Anglo-Saxon) law. A principle that protects us all.

The moral of this story: There are other kinds of corruption than just graft. And they can be far more dangerous. That’s something to remember the next time you hear a Blago joke.


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