Constable: Grifters, grafters, govs and Blago leave Lincoln crying

Growing up in Wheaton, filmmaker John Davies says his years working with Illinois institutions from WTTW to Second City gave him an insight into covering corruption and comedy. No one encapsulates that yin and yang better than our felonious former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Blago became national news again this month when Donald Trump told reporters he was “thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly,” and just as quickly returned to a back burner this past week when the president apparently got some pushback. The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission is in the process of disbarring Blago.

The story of how Illinois got to this point features enough laughs and corruption to fuel Davies' new film “Lincoln Is Crying: The Grifters, Grafters and Governors of Illinois.” The film, which combines documentary and comedic fiction, “exposes some of the biggest crooks who pillaged the Prairie State, including felonious aldermen, corrupt state representatives, thieving congressmen, scandalous mayors, larcenous governors and even a couple of cunning comptrollers,” says Davies, who wrote, coproduced with longtime collaborator and editor Brian Kallies, and directed the documentary that has Dave Truitt as executive producer. “Elected and appointed government officials of all races, ethnicities, genders and political affiliations participated in these crimes against the people of Illinois because corruption does not discriminate.”

But Blago is the star.

“The last 20 minutes or so is Blagojevich,” Davies says, noting he's showing the movie next month in Los Angeles for a variety of television and cable networks to find the best outlet. The film features comic actor David Pasquesi (you know him from “Veep,” “Lodge 49” and “At Home With Amy Sedaris”) as the voice of James Todd Lincoln, the fictional great-great-great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln. In addition to behind-the-scenes news footage of politicians, and interviews with reporters who covered Blagojevich, felon and former Gov. George Ryan, and other crooks, the film features Second City Vice President Kelly Leonard, and alums Tim Kazurinsky and Mike Hagerty, as well as footage from Second City's 2009 show, “Rod Blagojevich Superstar!”

Kazurinsky, a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member who has known Davies for 40 years, plays a funny Illinois booster, who pops into the film with comic pieces of trivia (in 1973, Chicago became the first city to ban pay toilets) to mitigate the bad news.

“They do great stuff,” Kazurinsky says of Davies and Kallies. A history buff and longtime Chicago resident, Kazurinsky was a fan of their 2016 documentary, “Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan,” and their 2017 film, “A City At War: Chicago.”

“Lincoln Is Crying” features commentary from prosecutors Patrick Collins and Randy Sanborn, defense attorneys Aaron Goldstein and Mike Ettinger, reporters, commentators and political minds from the right and from the left. But the movie doesn't start with Blago, or even Ryan.

“The event that kind of triggered corruption was the Great Chicago Fire of 1871,” Davies says. Out of the ashes rose a popular mayor named Carter Harrison, who realized there was money to be made in rebuilding Chicago. Harrison, who served five terms as mayor, was assassinated after giving the closing address at the World's Columbian Exposition by a man who claimed Harrison promised him a job in the administration. The gunman, who was defended by Clarence Darrow, was hanged, and the mayor's son, Carter Harrison Jr., became mayor four years later and also served five terms.

While the word “convicted” shows up in red in front of many prominent names, the film looks into deals made by unindicted mayors from the Harrisons to Republican William “Big Bill” Thompson to Democrats Richard J. and Richard M. Daley.

“I had to get the facts right, but the way I come at it is through comedy,” Davies says of the film, which he showed Thursday in Chicago as part of a fundraiser for Ida's Legacy, a group inspired by Ida B. Wells that seeks to develop progressive African-American women for public office.

“You're going to laugh a lot,” Davies says, noting that the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus sings an anthem to our four former governors who served time in prison. “In between the biggies, I put in the small potatoes.”

Former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell, now serving a 20-year prison sentence, embezzled $54 million to support a lavish lifestyle that included a prestigious horse-breeding business. Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett took a $2 million kickback and currently is serving at the minimum-security prison known as Camp Cupcake, where Martha Stewart once did time. Paul Powell, who was Illinois secretary of state, was never convicted, but he died with shoe boxes filled with about $800,000 believed to be ill-gotten. The film also includes former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and his now ex-wife, Sandy, a former Chicago City Council member, who both served time in prison. Felon Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak and indicted alderman Edward “Slow Eddie” Burke get screen time.

Davies says he hopes the film encourages residents to scrutinize candidates, vote and be more involved in local and state government.

When it comes to Blagojevich, Davies does what anyone with his Second City experience would do — be willing to improvise. With Trump still pondering the idea of letting Blago out of prison, Davies recorded two endings: One that says, “He hasn't yet,” and another that says, “And he has.”

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This photo of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich with his hands up during a visit with the Daily Herald editorial board was just a precursor of things to come. Blagojevich is a little more than halfway through his prison term. In the meantime, he's featured in a film that looks at 150 years of Illinois corruption. Daily Herald File Photo
In 2006, then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich used this gesture to proclaim that his opponent had created zero jobs. Some people say zero now is the chance Blagojevich has of getting a pardon or commutation from the president. Associated Press
Even though he spent most of his childhood in Wheaton, filmmaker John Davies got an education in covering corruption and creating comedy during his early career in Chicago. His new documentary-comedy hybrid looks at 150 years of corruption in Illinois. Courtesy of John Davies
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