Where will Madigan fit in Illinois' history of political corruption?

  • Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, center, walks with attorneys as he arrives at a Federal Correctional Institution in Littleton, Colo., on March 15, 2012, where he began serving time for corruption. He's the most recent of four Illinois governors who went to prison.

    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, center, walks with attorneys as he arrives at a Federal Correctional Institution in Littleton, Colo., on March 15, 2012, where he began serving time for corruption. He's the most recent of four Illinois governors who went to prison. Associated Press, March 15, 2012

 
 
Updated 3/5/2022 4:38 PM

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's indictment Wednesday on federal bribery and racketeering charges moves the longtime Democratic Party power broker into ignominious company.

Madigan is hardly the first Illinois politician to find himself the subject of a federal corruption investigation, and he'll most assuredly not be the last, experts agree.

 

"If you read the indictment, it's not just an indictment of Madigan; it's almost an indictment of the whole political system in Illinois," said John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Former Chicago alderman and current University of Illinois-Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson has chronicled political corruption in Illinois for years and charted the misfortunes of various public officials at all levels of government. He tallies more than 2,100 since 1976 who've wound up in federal prison. He's even co-authored a book on the topic.

He believes Madigan's indictment by a federal grand jury is one of the most significant political scandals in the state's history.

"For almost four decades he was the most powerful politician in Illinois," Simpson said. "And in the years he wasn't, he'd be second or third, because he had power over the entire Democratic Party and controlled the state legislature for that lengthy period of time."

And there's a lot of scandal to compare that to.

Crooked governors

George Ryan
George Ryan
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Illinois has the infamous distinction of having more governors than any other state find their way into federal prison, though only three were convicted of crimes they committed while in public office -- Otto Kerner, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. Former Gov. Dan Walker was sentenced to prison for his role in a savings and loan scandal that took place after he left office.

Illinois also has two other former governors who were charged but acquitted of wrongdoing while in office.

"The governors are always going to be a big deal," said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield. "You've got Kerner with the horse racing scandal, George Ryan got convicted on what was probably just his greatest hits, and Blagojevich, well, he was kind of an idiot in terms of trying to exercise his power."

Rod Blagojevich
Rod Blagojevich

Blagojevich was the most recently convicted governor. He was charged with, among other things, trying to sell Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat when Obama was elected president. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and did eight before former President Donald Trump commuted his sentence.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Ryan was convicted of a "licenses for bribes" scheme that began when the former governor was secretary of state. The multijurisdictional investigation culminated in 76 convictions in all for federal prosecutors. Ryan went to prison in 2007 and spent more than five years behind bars.

Otto Kerner
Otto Kerner

Kerner, who served as governor from 1961 to 1968, was convicted on mail fraud charges related to a bribery scandal involving money he received from horse racing interests. He was sentenced to three years in prison but was released early because he was dying of cancer.

Dan Walker
Dan Walker

Walker was convicted in 1987 of bank fraud after investigators learned he had personally borrowed $45,000 from someone after the savings and loan he operated loaned that individual nearly $300,000. Walker was sentenced to seven years in prison but was released after 18 months in 1989 because of poor health. He died 26 years later at age 92.

Simpson noted that many times these politicians were aware they were under investigation by law enforcement and still performed illegal activities. He cited Ryan's political campaign using state funds to buy an industrial shredder in an attempt to conceal evidence.

"And Blagojevich embodied that transactional way of doing politics that it becomes so pervasive you get sloppy and it becomes normal," Simpson said. "You get so used to thinking in those terms, you forget where the line is because you're so used to crossing it."

Statewide shenanigans

The governor's office is far from the only state post to have seen its share of scandal.

One of the most notorious Illinois political scandals actually resulted in real reforms, experts note.

"Orville Hodge is the reason we have the auditor general and comptroller's offices," Redfield said. "Before that you had one guy doing both jobs, and it didn't work out well for taxpayers."

Hodge was the state's auditor of public accounts from 1952 until 1956. He was convicted of embezzling more than $6 million by creating phony accounts and forging checks to himself. Prosecutors said Hodge used the money to buy two planes, more than two dozen cars and multiple properties.

He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, serving about half that. He forfeited many of his assets to avoid a longer sentence, according to reports from the time.

Another former Illinois House speaker was embroiled in a mysterious scandal, but it really only came to light when he died.

Paul Powell served as the speaker in the early 1960s and then was elected secretary of state until 1970 when he died in Minnesota undergoing treatment at the Mayo Clinic.

When his residence at a Springfield hotel was being cleaned out, shoe boxes, briefcases and safes stuffed with nearly $1 million were discovered.

A federal investigation ensued, culminating with the discovery that much of the money had come from kickbacks and bribes as well as dealings with horse-racing interests, according to court records and reports at the time.

The state recouped some funds in a settlement with Powell's estate.

Suburban chicanery

In Simpson's book he co-wrote with Thomas Gradel, "Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality," the authors note 100 suburban public officials have been convicted of corruption from 1994 to 2014.

"Far from being an escape from the corrupt practices of the big, bad city, many of the suburbs seem determined to imitate them," they wrote.

Betty Loren-Maltese, the former town president of Cicero, was a part of a long-running investigation that culminated with her arrest and eventual conviction in 2002. She spent almost eight years in prison for her part in a scheme that pilfered $12 million from the town's insurance fund.

Multiple suburbs have been affected by a red-light camera scandal involving bribes federal prosecutors say were paid by company officials of SafeSpeed LLC to elected leaders in order for the company to secure municipal contracts. Multiple indictments of suburban mayors and village presidents have been announced and are awaiting adjudication. The scandal has also caught up a Cook County commissioner and a state senator.

In the 1970s, several elected officials in Hoffman Estates pleaded guilty to receiving kickbacks from a developer for voting in favor of the developer's requested zoning changes.

Illinois has thousands of units of government, more than any other state in the union. However, Simpson doesn't believe the volume of the state's local governments is why Illinois is prone to corruption.

"It's the state's history of machine politics," he said. "You learn the process from within that machine, and then it's a very hard cycle to break."

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