When former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was found guilty on one count of lying to federal agents, he joined a long line of Illinois governors and politicos whose misdeeds bound them to fates ranging from mere social rebuke to extended stays in a variety of penal institutions.
Illinois has seen a culture of corruption produce a variety of memorable characters. From the proliferation of bootlegging and smuggling in Chicago in the early 1920s to the unremitting procession of scandals besieging Illinois’s empowered elite; graft, organized crime, and political malfeasance have long been defining characteristics within the machinations of Illinois’s power structure.
Consider some of the more infamous personages of Illinois’s political past:
- Serving as governor from 1921-1929, Len Small’s administration was infamous for its rampant corruption. Allegations of selling pardons were widespread, as were accusations related to embezzlement and money laundering. Small faced an indictment on related charges in 1922, however, despite substantial evidence against him, he was acquitted. Several of the jurors were given state jobs following the trial.
- Republican state auditor Orville Hodge was convicted of stealing millions from state coffers while in office from 1952-1956. Accounting fraud, embezzlement, and conspiracy were just some of the crimes Hodge engaged in while serving the people of Illinois.
- Republican governor William Stratton, who served from 1953-1961, was charged with tax evasion shortly after leaving office. He would ultimately be acquitted of the charges.
- While serving as Illinois Secretary of State from 1965-1970, Democrat Paul Powell earned a meager public servant’s salary of no more than $30,000 in any given year. However, upon his death, nearly one million dollars in cash was found stashed away in shoeboxes, hidden inside the closet of his hotel suite in Springfield. Powell’s reported motto was, “There’s only one thing worse than a defeated politician, and that’s a broke one.” Apparently, he was a man of his word.
- Democratic governor Otto Kerner, who served from 1961-1968, would find himself in hot water after only a few years from leaving the governor’s mansion to pursue a presidential appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Following confirmation to the bench, allegations would come to light implicating Kerner in a scandal that involved his acceptance of bribes while governor. He would ultimately be sentenced to three years in federal prison in 1973, following his conviction on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, and a host of other charges.
- Following closely on the heels of Kerner’s departure as governor was Democrat Dan Walker, who ascended to the office in 1973. Walker’s election was unprecedented in that he achieved the high post while eschewing the Daley Political Machine. His election was seen as the potential dawning of a new day in Illinois politics; one characterized by a fundamental reshaping of the political process. Alas, it was not to be. He served only one term before losing his bid for reelection. In the subsequent years following his departure from office, Walker would be convicted on charges ranging from perjury to fraud related to a Savings and Loan scandal. He was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
- Republican George Ryan’s problems started long before he became the thirty-ninth governor of the state of Illinois. Allegations of corruption, related to the acceptance of bribes in exchange for the issuance of licenses to unqualified truck drivers, reached back to his days as Illinois Secretary of State. Following his departure from office in 2003, Ryan would be charged and convicted of crimes ranging from money laundering to extortion to distributing cash payments to friends and family in exchange for government contracts. As prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald stated following the trial, “Mr. Ryan steered contracts worth millions of dollars to friends and took payments and vacations in return. When he was a sitting governor, he lied to the F.B.I. about this conduct and then he went out and did it again.” He currently resides in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Rod Blagojevich’s conviction may not rise to the same level of infamy that many of his predecessor’s indiscretions have; however, he has firmly cemented himself within the annals of Illinois’s corrupt political history. Defiant to the last, Blagojevich declared after the verdict, “This jury shows you that the government threw everything but the kitchen sink at me. They could not prove I did anything wrong—except for one nebulous charge from five years ago.”
Corruption, scandal, denial, conviction, more denial…repeat. One this is certain, Illinois politics is at least predictable.
Scott G. Erickson is an advocate of conservative, principled solutions to the issues facing America. He has worked to advance conservative priorities through coalition building and is an active participant in myriad organizations seeking to restore the foundational principles of America. A committed public servant, he has worked in the field of law enforcement for the past decade and holds both his B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice Studies. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.