Law & the Courts

Blagojevich’s Release Is a Chance to Tackle Corruption in Illinois

Rod Blagojevich, an ex-governor of Illinois convicted of corruption, waves as he exits his home after President Donald J. Trump commuted his prison sentence in Chicago, Ill., February 19, 2020. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)
As the former governor enjoys his newfound freedom, ethics reform has finally gained bipartisan support in the state legislature.

Nobody in Illinois politics wants Rod Blagojevich around.

Blagojevich has been shunned by fellow Democrats such as the current governor, J. B. Pritzker, who called President Donald Trump’s decision to commute his sentence an “abuse” of the pardon power. And the reception from Republicans has been no warmer: Illinois House minority leader Jim Durkin called Trump’s decision “disappointing,” echoing the sentiments of the many state Republicans who had previously pleaded with the president not to release the former governor early.

Sitting lawmakers, including Pritzker, want to wash their hands of the former governor, and that’s understandable from a political perspective. It’s easy to point the finger at Blago, as if he were the real problem. But in truth he’s just one name in a long, seemingly endless line of figures associated with public corruption in Illinois. The problem is a system that’s set up to be gamed by those who seek elected office to better themselves, rather than Illinoisans.

Now more than ever, the Land of Lincoln needs to get serious about foundational ethics reforms to end its culture of corruption.

In the past year alone, more than 30 Illinois lawmakers, businesses, and political figures were questioned, investigated, indicted, or convicted on federal corruption charges. All that corruption comes at a big price: Economic and policy experts at the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), where I serve as an editor, have estimated that it costs the state $550 million a year in lost economic opportunities. Harder to calculate is the cost to the state’s dignity and our collective good as a long line of corruption scandals has tarnished its name:

  • Four of the most recent eleven governors have gone to prison, and Pritzker is currently facing a federal probe over allegations that he removed toilets from a Chicago mansion in a scheme to save $331,000 in property taxes.
  • 30 Chicago aldermen have pleaded guilty to or been convicted of corruption since 1972.
  • Federal prosecutors logged 1,731 public corruption convictions between 1976 and 2017 in the Northern District of Illinois, the district that includes Chicago.
  • Illinois has seen 891 corruption convictions since 2000, or nearly one per week, making it the most corrupt state in the nation during that time.

Just within the past year, federal corruption probes have nabbed two Chicago aldermen, two state senators, and a state representative, resulting in one conviction and one guilty plea thus far. There are about 30 politicians and lobbyists whose names have surfaced as part of the continuing federal investigation into a tangle of former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists, sitting public officials accused of doing lobbying work, and leaders, ranging from local townships up to the statehouse, trading favors and influence for cash, sex, or other private gain.

Far from being inured to such chicanery, the vast majority of Illinoisans still see corruption as a big deal and want their politicians to model themselves after Honest Abe rather than Al Capone. When polled, Illinoisans have rated “cleaning up corruption in state government” as a higher priority than quality schools, crime reduction, a balanced budget, or lower taxes. The Illinois Education Association poll on voters’ priorities showed corruption rated the top score of ten from 69 percent of respondents, and 85 percent scored it at eight or above. And that poll was conducted nearly a year ago, before the latest investigations had picked up steam.

The good news is that the systemic flaws that breed corruption in the state also make it ripe for reform. Blagojevich’s impeachment as governor led to a set of proposed changes, most of which have been gathering cobwebs since 2009, which would be a good start. In addition, the IPI has compiled its own list of recommendations:

  • Slowing the revolving door through restrictions on former state lawmakers’ becoming lobbyists. Currently, Illinois is one of only 14 states with no such restrictions, and the results of that shortcoming speak for themselves.
  • Empowering the Illinois legislative inspector general to investigate lawmakers’ corruption. As things stand now, the IG’s office is muzzled. It must seek approval from a panel of state lawmakers before opening investigations, issuing subpoenas, or publishing summary reports. The former IG has claimed that lawmakers prevented her from reporting on wrongdoing by at least one of their peers.
  • Forcing state lawmakers to recuse themselves from votes on matters in which they have a conflict of interest, rather than operating on the honor system. There is no current state law or even parliamentary rule requiring Illinois lawmakers to disclose a conflict of interest before a vote, much less to excuse themselves from voting on issues in which they have a personal financial stake. There is only a suggestion that they abstain in such cases.
  • Reforming the Illinois House rules, which grant more concentrated power to the House speaker than any other statehouse’s rules. Speaker Mike Madigan has been in power for 35 years and is also chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, giving him near-absolute power over state politics and finances, and over which bills become law.
  • Passing a bipartisan constitutional amendment to end politically drawn legislative maps in the state. In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said, “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.” The same goes for state legislative districts, which are drawn to keep incumbents safe and discourage challengers from giving voters a real choice at the polls.

Illinois corruption reforms have been in limbo longer than Blagojevich was in prison. It is time to enact some into law and stop relying on the Department of Justice to root out wrongdoing. Fortunately, today these ethics reforms are back on the table in the state capitol, as fresh legislation exists with bipartisan support to actually effect the change that can address Illinois’s corruption problem.

There’s no time like the present to fix the culture of corruption that’s plagued the Land of Lincoln since well before Blagojevich came on the scene. And there’s nowhere to go but up.

Brad Weisenstein, a native of Belleville, Ill., is an editor at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. For 32 years, he covered corruption in Illinois government as a reporter and editor at his hometown paper.

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