Illinois ranks high in corruption but has tough prosecutors
SPRINGFIELD — A new study lists Illinois as the third most corrupt area in the nation, and Chicago as the most corrupt city, and experts in the state say Illinois has earned those titles.
The report, released at a Wednesday statehouse news conference, details a study from the University of Illinois in Chicago, or UIC, and University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs in Champaign.
Only Louisiana and the District of Columbia have more corruption convictions per capita than Illinois. Chicago leads all cities in the United States in corruption convictions, where defendants are either elected officials or public money is involved, according to the report.
“For a long time, going back to at least the Al Capone era, Chicago and Illinois have been known for high levels of public corruption,” said UIC political science professor Dick Simpson. “But now we have the statistics that confirm their dishonorable and notorious reputations."
Only two other states have seen more of these convictions than Illinois in the past 36 years. California reported 2,345 convictions and New York had 2,522. Because the study makes the comparisons on a per-person basis and these two states have larger populations than Illinois, California and New York received lower rankings.
Illinois has around 12.8 million residents and averages 1.42 convictions per 10,000 residents.
Due to its significantly smaller estimated population of 4.5 million, Louisiana sees an average of two convictions per 10,000 people, making it the second most corrupt state.
However, the District of Columbia is the most corrupt; with well under a million residents, it has a per capita rate of 16.
Former federal prosecutor for Illinois' central district, Roger Heaton, said one reason Chicago and northern Illinois have seen so many corruption convictions is because prosecutors there take corruption cases seriously.
"There's a history of active investigations out of northern Illinois," said Heaton who has now moved on to private practice here. "And because prosecutions (of those investigations) were successful and resources were added to those forces, they grow and grow."
Heaton is quick to add that he "doesn't think Illinois is particularly corrupt, just that there have been a number of successful prosecutions."
Heaton served as the top federal prosecutor in central Illinois from 2005 to 2009.
Taylor Pensoneau spent nearly 12 years writing about Illinois government from the statehouse as a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo., and has spent the past decade or so writing about Illinois as an author.
Pensoneau agreed with Heaton that Illinois has been successful in prosecuting corrupt politicians because of its aggressive prosecutors rather than an abundance of corrupt politicians.
"I think it's fair to say that if other U.S. District Attorneys in other parts of the country were as aggressive as Peter Fitzgerald, more indictments would be happening all around the U.S.," said Pensoneau.
Fitzgerald leads the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago, and under his leadership, that office has secured convictions against former Illinois Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich as well as longtime statehouse power broker Bill Cellini.
Pensoneau acknowledged though that Illinois' recent history does not look good for the state.
"We have to face the fact that out of the last 10 governors, five were indicted," Pensoneau said. "And four of the last seven have been convicted."
Former Govs. Otto Kerner, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich have all been convicted of corruption charges. Former Gov. Dan Walker was convicted of bank fraud charges after he left the governor's office.
Heaton said the real message of the story is not that Illinois is more corrupt than almost every other state, but that abusing the public trust will result in harsh consequences.
"The main value of studies like this, they draw people's attention to an ongoing problem," Heaton said. "And it reminds voters that this is important. If people misbehave and misuse public resources, then we all suffer."
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