Friday, July 1, 2011

The sorry state of our state

Rod Blagojevich's conviction last week on several counts of crimes committed while he was the governor of the State of Illinois is just the latest sad chapter in the litany of our former governors going on to become convicted felons. Thanks to Blago, our state has been the joke de jour for the late night comics, and why not, we've become easy fodder as four of our last seven elected governors have ended up, or are about to end up in prison.

Which means, in the words of the Daily Show's John Stewart: "...if you take the current governor of Illinois and sit him between two former governors, chances are, he's in jail."


Is our state indeed the most corrupt in the nation? True, it's hard to beat our current streak of gubernatorial convictions, but I'd say that question is more difficult than meets the eye.

Policing elected officials is a little like refereeing a football game in that it is possible to call an infraction on virtually every play. A football penalty's being called depends on a number of factors, how blatant the foul, its effect on the outcome of the play, the position of the refs in relation to the foul, etc.

In politics, like football, there is a fine line between legitimacy and infraction. As I stated in my previous post, in the game of politics, quid pro quo is the name of the game, seldom is anything given by a politician that is not answered with something in return. What that something is, how it is gotten, and how it is used, define which side of the line a politician stands on.

In football, a referee is judged not only by his ability to make just and accurate calls at the appropriate time, but also his ability to remain perfectly neutral throughout a game. Unlike football, in politics the officials are not neutral, often it is the opposition that gets to throw the yellow flag. Now I'm not saying that Illinois politicians are not corrupt, far from it, but the cut throat nature of politics in this state plays just as big a role in the prosecution of elected officials, as the corruption itself.

As everyone knows, Illinois politics, like football, is a no holds barred, full contact sport. The stakes are high and competition is intense. Many successful careers in Illinois have been made out of the prosecution and conviction of politicians, and prosecutors have a huge motivation for going after them, especially the big ones. It is not unreasonable to suspect that criminal prosecutions of politicians in Illinois are based on believe it or not, politics. Here is what U.S. Attorney General (and later Supreme Court Justice) Robert H. Jackson had to say on the role of the prosecutor and the dangers that lie therein back in 1940:

If the prosecutor is obliged to choose his cases, it follows that he can choose his defendants. Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor: that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than pick cases that need to be prosecuted.

A more complete excerpt with a link to Jackson's entire warning to United States attorneys can be found here.

The four former governors who were prosecuted and convicted for their crimes will forever be linked together as an unfortunate lonely hearts club. But the four could not have been more different both as individuals and as leaders.

Out of fairness, I think it only reasonable to look into the actions of the four, as well as some of the governors who did not end up behind bars, and compare their legacies.

Otto Kerner had a distinguished military career and a legal career that extended beyond his role as governor. During his two terms in office, Kerner pushed through legislation dealing with progressive issues such as mental health, equal access to jobs and housing and education. He is probably best known nationally for the commission that bears his name. It was formed by President Lyndon Johnson to study the causes of unrest that led to the devastating race riots that took place in several large industrial cities throughout the United States during the sixties, and its findings were released in 1968. The commission's findings, the Kerner Report, was an indictment of segregation and racism in the U.S. Its most salient quote was:

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black and one white - separate and unequal.

Otto Kerner resigned from office in 1968 after he was appointed appellate court judge. Kerner it turns out was in particular disfavor with the Nixon administration. In a recording between Richard Nixon and then U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell made in May of 1971, Nixon asks Micthell, if he is "going to do anything" about Kerner, then goes on to say: "I'd like to see you get him." Seven months later, U.S. Attorney and Nixon appointee James R. Thompson, prosecuted Kerner for accepting bribes while governor (in the form of discounted race track stock from the manager of a local track) and for violating a nebulous statute called honest services fraud. Later the bribery charges were dismissed and in 1987, 11 years after Kerner's death, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the honest services fraud law. Congress, using different wording quickly revived the law but last year the Supreme Court reviewed it again, and severely limited the law by a unanimous decision. Kerner's son Anton has for years been trying to clear his father's name, so far unsuccessfully.

Samuel Shapiro, Lieutenant Governor under Kerner, served out the remainder of Kerner's term but lost in the general election to Cook County Sheriff Richard Ogilvie. Shapiro was not in office long enough to get into trouble while Ogilvie was by most accounts a very competent governor who left behind a very unpopular but necessary legacy. He established the Illinois State Income Tax.

Because of that, Ogilvie lost the following general election to a then relatively unknown Dan Walker. Walker was a bit of a renegade who, unlike his fellow Democrat Otto Kerner, was constantly at odds with the political establishment, most of all the Richard J. Daley Machine. As a result, little was accomplished during his administration. Walker the incumbent governor lost in his own party's primary (something virtually unheard of), to a Daley man, Michael Howlett. Dan Walker returned to private life where as the head of a savings and loan institution, he violated banking regulations by using his sons' names to take out personal loans in order to exceed the allowed amount. He was convicted and sent up the river. Unlike the other three convicted governors, Walker's crimes were not related to his time in public service.

The aforementioned James R. (Big Jim) Thompson, built his career upon the prosecution of Kerner and higher ups in the Daley administration, mostly by using the discredited honest services fraud statute. By the mid-seventies, the public had become fed up with the shenanigans of elected officials and during Thompson's reign as U.S. Attorney, he became something of a local folk hero. In the gubernatorial election of 1976 Thompson defeated Howlett in a landslide and served for an unprecedented four terms as governor. His greatest legacy besides the prosecution of Kerner, was the construction of the state office building Chicago's Loop, the Helmut Jahn monstrosity known appropriately enough as the James R. Thompson Center.

Thompson's successor was fellow Republican, Jim Edgar. Edgar had the benefit of a Republican controlled State Assembly resulting in administrative success in pushing through his agenda. In addition he was a moderate who enjoyed popularity on both sides of the aisle. His administration was largely free of controversy and scandal and to this day he is considered favorably as an elder statesman of his party, and his name continues to be brought up as a possible future candidate.

His successor George Ryan by contrast, began his administration under a cloud of suspicion from his days as Illinois Secretary of State. There had been rumors afloat that there were members of that office under Ryan's watch who had accepted bribes in exchange for driver's licenses. Ryan for the most part during his early administration remained unscathed as no one could finger him in any of the misdeeds. George Ryan was the very picture of the well connected old time politician, a party apparatchik who would have fit right in with the Democratic Machine of Richard J. Daley, had he not been from Downstate Illinois where everybody is Republican. Gradually the license for bribes scandal caught up with Ryan and he did not seek a second term. He was eventually charged with numerous counts of fraud related to the scandal, and other misdeeds involving the personal misuse of campaign funds for his and his family's personal use. He was convicted on all counts and currently resides in the federal penitentiary. Ironically, Ryan's defense was conducted pro bono by the firm headed by none other than Big Jim Thompson.

If one were to measure the gravity of Illinois gubernatorial misdeeds in terms of the direct effects they had on the state and its citizens, Ryan's would win hands down. The most notorious example, the incident that started the investigations in the first place, was a tragedy that occurred in 1994 on Interstate 94 in Wisconsin. Six children from one family were killed when the van in which they were traveling struck debris that came off a truck, then crashed and burned. It turned out the driver of the truck received his license through a bribe to an employee of the Secretary of State's office. While it's a stretch to blame Ryan personally for the children's deaths, the enormity of the tragedy that occurred thirteen years earlier, certainly had a huge impact in his trial.

However, just as his crimes touched Illinois residents most directly, so did some of his accomplishments as governor, perhaps more than any of those mentioned above, and certainly far more than the one yet to be mentioned. The Ryan administration committed record funding to education, as well as to public transportation and highway infrastructure. Of his accomplishments, he will be most remembered as the man who imposed the moratorium of the Illinois death penalty. It was known for a long time that our penal system was terribly flawed and several prisoners on death row had been proven innocent through the new technology of DNA profiling. While Ryan himself was by no means an opponent of the death penalty, he understood that it was better to not execute murderers than to take the life of a single innocent person. Just before leaving office, Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates to life in prison.

For this action, Ryan received worldwide notoriety, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Those who opposed the moratorium, mostly Ryan's former supporters, claimed that Ryan was merely trying to bolster up his legacy in light of the impending charges against him. I find this to be unlikely. The moratorium was an unpopular act, as most Illinois citizens are in favor of capital punishment. If he truly wanted to gain the public's favor there were far easier issues he could have advocated, say, free bus rides for senior citizens.

Popular or not, George Ryan's action on capital punishment was the correct one in my opinion, and I applaud him for that. It was one of the boldest and bravest moves by any Illinois governor, ever. Adding to his legacy whether he wants it or not, this past week the state of Illinois formally abolished its death penalty.

Then came Rod Blagojevich. He was as different from George Ryan as Ryan was from Jim Edgar except in one respect; Blago and Ryan will likely both be in prison at the same time. Brash, cocky, self assured Blago always went his own way, much to the detriment of the people of Illinois. He couldn't get along with anyone that mattered, not because of ideological differences as was the case with Dan Walker, but just because he was well, Rod Blagojevich. If George Ryan's actions had a real effect on the people of this state, both positive and negative, Blagojevich's had none. He billed himself as the voice of the little guy, but most of the legislation he did manage to get through the legislature was window dressing at best, popular but of little substance or consequence. Even before his corruption investigations, Blagojevich's approval ratings were historically low.

The expletive filled tapes obtained by court ordered FBI wiretaps that were presented in his two trials, portray a man who was obsessed with his own power and personal gain. They show utter contempt for the concept of "public service." In the several counts against him, what really nailed Blagojevich was his attempt to sell the senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president in 2008. Blago's words recorded on tape: "I've got this thing, and it's fucking golden. I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing," will no doubt follow him to his grave, and beyond.

Yet for all the sleaze, the Feds did not prove that Blago actually received anything in return for all his dubious efforts. This was in fact the basis behind his defense, and it may still add him some points in his appeal. His solicitations for bribes, like the entirety of his administration, added up to nothing.

So to add it all up, we have in our convict club one good governor, Kerner, who made a dumb mistake while in office, and was likely brought down by a vindictive, thoroughly corrupt administration in Washington, one ineffective governor, Walker, who did not betray the public trust while in office, and one old school governor, Ryan, whose accomplishments will forever be overshadowed because he forgot that times had changed and the public didn't look kindly anymore on an elected official dipping into the till.

Then we have Rod Blagojevich, who without his crimes, probably would have gone down in history as the worst governor in Illinois history.

With last week's convictions, he's a sure thing.

And we voters of Illinois elected him, not once, but twice, so I guess we got what we deserved.

No comments: