ON MARCH 15th the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, will start to serve a 14-year sentence for corruption in a federal low-security prison. In this part of America, he is treading a well-worn path. Over four decades, four governors (out of seven) have been convicted of corruption.
A new report, by Dick Simpson and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, documents the extent to which the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago have been hotbeds of corruption. Chicago, they conclude, has the dubious distinction of being the federal district with the most convictions since 1976.
Since then, 1,828 elected officials, appointees, government employees and a few private individuals have been convicted of corruption in Illinois, and 84% of these were in its Northern District—a judicial zone which contains the entire Chicago metropolitan area. During this time around one-third of the city’s aldermen have been convicted of corruption. No mayors have been convicted or indicted—not even Bill Thompson, who was backed by Al Capone.
Although Chicago is the capital of corruption, the state of Illinois as a whole ranks only third in the country—after the much more populous states of New York and California. But the report documents a pattern of crime that has become synonymous with the Chicago or Illinois way of doing things. All the corrupt governors and 26 of the aldermen had tried to extract bribes from builders, developers, business owners and those seeking to do business with the city or the state. Those who paid bribes either assumed, or were told, that payment was necessary for zoning changes, building permits or any other government action.
Mr Blagojevich, notoriously, sought money in exchange for an appointment to a seat in the Senate. Other convictions may have been less spectacular, but the pattern of pay-offs for political favours has prevailed in these parts for 150 years.
A project under way by the State Integrity Investigation, due out on March 19th, notes that some changes have been made in the light of past scandals. Mr Simpson thinks the ultimate solution lies in ending the culture of corruption, which would include prohibiting patronage (something he says is on the decline anyway), nepotism and the holding of two government jobs at the same time.
Corruption has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and sapped faith in government. Both the new governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, and the new mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, have shown a willingness to reform. Many of Mr Emanuel’s early executive orders are designed to improve transparency and accountability. But Mr Simpson says too many loopholes remain. The devil, as ever, is in the detail.