By Ashley Griffin
If you thought Chicago and Illinois were among the most corrupt locales in the nation, you weren’t wrong, according to a report released Wednesday.
According to the report “Chicago and Illinois, Leading the Pack in Corruption,” the Northern District of Illinois, which primarily consists of the Chicago metropolitan area, is the most corrupt federal district in the country, and Illinois ranks as the “third most corrupt” state. The report, released by the University of Illinois Chicago and the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, is based on data from the U.S. Department of Justice's Public Integrity Section that dates back from 1976.
“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,” Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois Chicago and an author of the report, said in a prepared statement. “But now, we have the statistics to confirm their dishonorable and notorious reputations.”
In all, the Northern District has had more than 1,500 federal corruption convictions since 1976 and averaged 51 federal corruptions convictions per year. The report states: “The Illinois Northern District, which contains the entire Chicago metropolitan area, accounts for 1,531 of the 1,828 public corruption convictions in Illinois. Therefore, almost 84 percent of the state’s federal public corruption convictions took place in the Northern District. This makes it the federal district with the most public corruption convictions in the nation since 1976.”
New York and California ranked higher than Illinois for total corruption convictions by state. When corruption convictions were looked at on a per capita basis, the District of Columbia and Louisiana held the top spots, and Illinois again came in third.
James Nowlan, a senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said of the rest of Illinois: “The other districts are much smaller in population, and they have significantly fewer, often very few, convictions for public corruption. A cursory look would suggest that Central and Southern districts are less corrupt than the Northern District.” However, Nowlan said such statistics could be misleading because prominent cases, such as the recent corruption trial of Springfield political insider William Cellini, are often tried in the Northern District, regardless of where they took place.
“We hope this report, imperfect as it is, does have some legs because I think most people in Illinois are distressed by the perception of Illinois,” said Nowlan, who is also one of the authors of the report. “Since the 1880s, Chicago has been known as a place in which people who enter public life often try to do well rather than do good, and so, the Chicago nexus of corruption has been with us more than a century, and it is rooted in machine politics, in which politics is a career for many who enter it.”
Despite such gloomy news, the report does make suggestions on how to address the problem. “Attacking corruption starts with a comprehensive programs of mutually reinforcing reforms. These should include a mix of corruption prevention and enforcement measure, along with public involvement and education,” states the report. It gives six recommendations that include amending the city’s ethic ordinance to cover aldermen and their staff and banning all gifts to all elected officials and public employees, except from family members. The report also supports Gov. Pat Quinn’s recently proposed constitutional amendment that would allow Illinois citizens to adopt ethics reforms by referendum.
“I haven’t seen it [the referendum] in detail, but Illinois has an ethics deficit, and anything we can do to improve our ethical behavior would be good for the state. So it sounds like it gives the citizens an opportunity to provide some input on ethical behavior, codes of ethics or other kinds of ethical programs,” Nowlan said. However, similar proposals from Quinn in the past have gone nowhere in the legislature.
Nowlan said public perception of the most corrupt states was spot on with the report’s findings. He said a yet unpublished national public opinion poll he conducted found Illinois ranked third among states most perceived as corrupt. New York and California also took the top spots in that poll.
Nowlan said the report will be presented today to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ethics commission, but so far, there are no plans to present it to any statewide ethics panels.