Blagojevich trial: Sadly, business as usual in Illinois

Rod Blagojevich may have escaped criminal conviction on most counts, but his trial offers no comfort to Illinois' long-suffering voters. It was a sleazy reality show, featuring insider deals and pay-to-play politics. Blago's closest aides either testified against him (acknowledging their role in a criminal conspiracy), or, like Tony Rezko and Stuart Levine, couldn't be trusted to testify.

And so ends another exciting season of Illinois' version of "Jersey Shore," starring the former governor as "The (Bad) Situation." On reality TV, the popular themes are casual sex and catty talk. In Springfield, they are sweetheart deals and cold cash, passed under the table or funneled into political campaigns. Friends of the governor whisper that the state is eager to fund your hospital — but first, let's discuss that $50,000 contribution you'll want to make to his campaign. Or maybe you'd like to hold a big fundraiser. Separate matters, ya understand.

It's been a major national story for two years, and it makes Illinois a laughingstock. The joke, unfortunately, is on us, the state's voters and taxpayers.

Chicago has attracted the same kind of attention, and for good reasons. The city provides better services than the state — the parks are beautiful and the garbage gets picked up — but the corruption is just as bad. Aldermen are regularly carted off to jail for pocketing bribes, some 29 convictions over the past four decades. Hiring practices are notorious, despite federal rulings to restrict them. Mayor Richard M. Daley's former patronage chief, Robert Sorich, was convicted of rigged hiring. Al Sanchez, boss of the powerful Streets and Sanitation department, has been convicted of bribery and patronage. Mr. Sanchez helped create a vital cog in the Daley political machine, the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which collapsed when several big shots were implicated in crimes ranging from perjury and fraud to the Hired Truck scandal.

If bribery and patronage hiring aren't bad enough, consider the city's notorious zoning practices. Top real-estate lawyers won't go near these cases. Just ask yourself, why would the city's most prominent law firms pass up rich hourly fees? Why would they hold their noses, back away and refer clients to politically connected lawyers? Puzzling, huh?

The real issue here is political control over land use, which translates into ready money for politicians. Remember, each alderman essentially controls zoning in his own ward. Let's say your land is worth more — perhaps much more — if the city gives you permission to build what you want. Corrupt politicians will want to share this windfall. In exchange for a zoning variation, an alderman may want you to make a campaign contribution, hire her favorite law firm, buy insurance from her husband, or use her brother as your real estate agent. Insider contracts work the same way, effectively dividing the profits between politicians and connected businessmen. Politicians grant valuable favors and receive contributions in exchange.

Are these insider transactions illegal? It all depends on how blatant the exchange is. If you ask directly for a payment or favor, it's a crime. If you are smart enough to wink, it works just as well, and it's not a crime. In either case, it's what economists call political "rent extraction." Chicagoans call it business as usual.

Federal prosecutors have been investigating this local culture of corruption for years, but they have gotten no help from Chicago's top politicians, even those with heavy sentences hanging over them. A few minnows like former Alderman Ike Carothers might agree to wear a wire. But the big fish keep their mouths shut. The code of omertà still lives at City Hall.

In this dirty landscape, the only disinfectant has been a relentless, squeaky-clean federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. He is a rarity, nominated by a quirky outsider, former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, not the usual insiders from Chicago and Springfield. Those connected pols would love to see the back of Mr. Fitzgerald, perhaps kicked upstairs and buried in Eric Holder's Justice Department. But his high profile battling corruption has made that impossible. Now that the Blagojevich case has failed so spectacularly, Mr. Fitzgerald's enemies will surely try again to "promote" him — or coax him into private practice.

It's a familiar story. Illinois voters seem resigned to it. They didn't just elect Rod Blagojevich; they re-elected him after his seedy deals were common knowledge. The question now is whether Chicago and state voters, beleaguered by high taxes, a sluggish economy and two corrupt governors, have finally had enough: Enough national newscasts saying the Blagojevich trial shows how Illinois politics really works. Enough national derision about "the Chicago Way." Enough back-room payoffs.

Or will we shrug and leave it up to the vagaries of another federal trial?

Charles Lipson is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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