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Lessons in Illinois Politics From the Blago Trial

A Culture of Corruption

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

The near total dismissal of charges against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich signifies the tremendous extent in which the culture of corruption has taken hold among the states’ officials and populace.  Anyone who’s evenly remotely familiar with the Blagojevich “pay to play” scandal has heard the damning excerpts from audio surveillance tapes released by federal prosecutor and U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.  For those who may have forgotten the details regarding what the tapes revealed about Blagojevich’s many extortion schemes, I’ve reproduced some of the most incendiary incidents below:

In the most notorious conspiracy charge, Blagojevich sought to extort those interested in the open Illinois Senate seat in the wake of Obama’s election as president.  In one such conversation, Blagojevich described the Senate seat as such: “It’s a fucking valuable thing.  You don’t just give it away for nothing…I’ve got this thing, and it’s fucking golden.  And I’m not just giving it away for fucking nothing.  I’m not going to do it, and I can always use it; I can parachute me there.”  As the tapes indicated, numerous benefits pursued by Blagojevich in exchange for the seat included an appointment as Secretary of Health and Human Services department, an ambassador position, a well paying job for his wife, increased campaign contributions for his re-election, and a potential appointment to a private foundation.  Responding to Obama’s refusal to trade benefits for the appointment of the Senate seat, Blagojevich stated: “They’re not willing to give me anything but appreciation.  Fuck them.” 

In regards to a $1.8 billion Illinois toll way project, Blagojevich was recorded seeking to gain as much as $100,000 in campaign contributions from an individual who had benefitted from the state contract.  As Blagojevich said at the time (2008): “I could have made a larger announcement (about the contribution he sought) but wanted to see how they would perform by the end of the year.  If they don’t perform, fuck em.”

In relation to the Chicago Tribune’s call for his impeachment, Blagojevich planned to send a message to the paper informing its owners that, if they wished to obtain state funding to help sell Wrigley Field or receive grants for its remodeling (the Tribune was the former owner of the Cubs franchise), they would need to fire editors who had been critical of Blagojevich.  As the former governor argued, “Fire all those fucking people.  Get them the fuck out of there.  And get us some editorial support.”

In regards to Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, Blagojevich appropriated $8 million in funding reimbursements that were apparently contingent upon his receipt of a $50,000 contribution from the hospital’s CEO.  Blagojevich reacted in anger at a contact from the hospital when they refused to collude on the contribution: “Screw these guys.”  Blagojevich also remarked in another conversation with a subordinate that the state should “Hold it up” (the hospital’s funding), “don’t do anything until I tell you.”

Part of the common narrative in Illinois for why the federal government failed to convict Blagojevich on most serious charges against him relates to the complexity of the trial.  As the New York Times reports, “the judge had handed [the jury] instructions that ran to more than a hundred pages.  The verdict sheet was as elaborate as some income tax forms.  And many of the 24 counts they were being asked to consider came in multiple parts and were highly technical and interconnected.”  It ended up taking the jury more than two full weeks to reach their verdicts, all of which were hung with the exception of the charge that Blagojevich lied to federal investigators, in which he was found guilty.  The federal government is currently in the midst of re-planning its approach, as it will seek to re-try Blagojevich on many of the charges.

But there are other equally convincing reasons for Blagojevich’s good fortune outside of the complexity of the charges against him. 

Much of Blago’s luck in dodging federal charges relates to the culture of cynicism and corruption that has taken hold of the state’s public and officials.  As the New York Times reports regarding the case, “it became clear early on that some jurors believed that much of Mr. Blagojevich’s crass political talk – captured in hours [emphasis added] of secretly recorded phone calls – amounted to dreamy thoughts of what he might gain, not criminal demands.”  One juror explained of Blagojevich’s actions that she “did not see it as a violation of any laws.  It was politics.  It was more of conversations of what-ifs.” 

Juror assumptions that efforts to extort children’s hospitals, professional sports franchises, major newspapers, and toll way contractors are simply politics as usual must come off as extremely cynical to those following the case from out of state.  In assessing the federal charges against Blagojevich – specifically the conspiracy to commit extortion - one merely need look to the definition of conspiracy: efforts to secretly plot or plan activities that are deemed illegal in nature. 

In light of this simple definition, Blagojevich can distinctly be heard discussing extortion plans with a number of individuals via telephone.  Those planned acts were certainly done in secret, and are violations of federal law.  Nowhere was this clearer than in the Children’s Memorial Hospital case, in which Patrick Fitzgerald presented evidence that Blagojevich ordered the delay of funds from the organization in light of his failure to receive a bribe.  There appears to be little room for interpretation here, and most of the jurors apparently agree.  As New York Times reporting has made abundantly clear, most all (with the exception of one) of the jurors agreed that Blagojevich was guilty of many of the worst charges made against him. 

One would have thought the case against Blagojevich was a slam dunk in a state with a population that is sick and tired of bribery and corruption.  And yet widespread cynicism and apathy as directed toward government has long been the norm in Illinois.  This means that the bar has been set radically lower in terms of public expectations, and what officially counts as corruption.  Former Governor George Ryan is still serving a more than six year term for his role in the “license for bribes” scandal, in which state employees were illegally selling licenses to unqualified drivers.  The scandal eventually exploded after a federal investigation into a crash in Wisconsin involving an Illinois driver in which six children were killed.  The investigation found that Ryan was part of a state scheme that granted licenses to unqualified truck drivers in exchange for bribes.  The scandal was wide-reaching, as 76 of 79 state officials and lobbyists (among others) charged were eventually convicted.

The Daley political machine (the only urban machine left in the country) has also amassed its own record of patronage based corruption over the decades.  Daley’s former patronage chief was convicted in 2006 of two counts of mail fraud in relation to manipulating the city’s hiring system in exchange for political favors.  As the Chicago Sun Times reported at the time, “four former city workers were accused of rigging a hiring scheme to reward clout-backed job candidates with jobs and promotions.  Witnesses testified that [the workers charged] handed ‘blessed’ lists of job candidates to personnel directors who then assured them jobs through sham interviews and fixed tests.  The job candidates were often chosen because of their political work.”  In an investigation into the “hired truck” scandal, the Chicago Sun Times found that companies involved in city contracting jobs were paid to do little to no work, and were responsible for paying bribes in order to secure their jobs with the city.

Federal investigation into patronage based hiring in the city of Chicago found evidence of “pervasive fraud” that led to 30 indictments, extending as high as charges against two senior officials in the Daley administration and a dozen cabinet level positions.  Such wheeling and dealing is so common throughout the city and the surrounding county (Cook County) that public workers rarely give it a second thought.  In recalling my own experiences with the patronage machine, my wife used to be employed with the County’s Circuit Clerk Office, managed by Dorothy Brown.  My wife used to tell me of regular conversations she had with an accountant at the Daley Center downtown (where she worked) about how political fundraising for Brown was an integral part of his (admittedly informal) job description.  What political fundraising for a political official has to do with competently performing accounting work is anyone’s guess. 

Patronage based hiring was widely classified as illegitimate 127 years ago by the federal government through the Pendleton Civil Service Act.  That legislation sought to cure the national government of the corruption and incompetence that comes along with hiring based on political fundraising, electioneering, and inside contacts, over hiring based upon professional competence and qualifications.  The fact that such patronage based hiring and firing is openly and casually discussed throughout Chicago – now more than a century behind the rest of the country – is a sign of just how corrupt the state of Illinois has become.

Politicians in Illinois have seized upon the trial of Blagojevich to construct an image of the former governor as an isolated case of corruption.  This framework is a toxic threat for those who want to see real transparency in Illinois and an end to bribery, extortion, and patronage.  The real travesty behind the Blagojevich trial is that the citizens of Illinois appear to be so disillusioned that they can’t recognize blatant examples of corruption when they see them.  The Blagojevich case was a gift to federal prosecutors from the very beginning, with the head official of the state openly conspiring about his extortion schemes.  That Blagojevich could emerge from this trial as unscathed as he has is truly a sign of the moral degeneration of the state’s political system, and more importantly, the defeatist apathy and demoralization of the state’s citizenry.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com), a daily online magazine devoted to the study of media, public opinion, and current events.   He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College, and is the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He can be reached at: mediaocracy@gmail.com.