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Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Sorry State of Illinois

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune Op-ed Columnist

April 23, 2006

Why was there even mild surprise last week when a jury convicted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan of corruption? When Illinois juries get their hands on a governor, they tend to put him away.

Of our seven prior governors, three now have been convicted. In Illinois, jurors are batting .750. So, give jurors a chance and they'll take down corrupt governors. Which makes me wonder about any bewilderment that this jury convicted Ryan on all counts. Look at history: just three governors before Republican Ryan was Democrat Dan Walker, who served 17 months for fraudulently obtaining bank loans. But that was after he left office, so maybe he doesn't count; the governorship was only training camp.

Five years before Walker was Democrat Otto Kerner who was convicted in 1973 on charges of bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, tax evasion and perjury. He was paroled after serving a year. Immediately before him was Republican William Stratton, who was indicted for federal tax evasion. He was acquitted. Not to worry; while the governor's suite at the federal pen is unoccupied, other top state officers often keep it warm.

Has any other Illinois office harbored such a high proportion of serial offenders? (Chicago aldermen, maybe, but doing the math gives me a headache.) In the face of such gubernatorial recidivism, you'd think that at least a few Illinois politicians might recognize the dangers and run the other way. How to explain such recklessness?

I think I know one reason, but obviously not the only reason. Once elected to high office, their lordships begin sharing the same rarified air that the rich and powerful heads of the town's big national and international corporations breathe. It's a long way from the humble work of hustling votes by ringing doorbells or holding someone's fedora. On MRI brain scans, it shows up as metastasizing clumps of self-importance. Governors, mayors, agency chairmen, department heads and even aldermen all display the symptoms. It makes them feel untouchable.

In fact, their egos are tolerated, if not cultivated, by the corporate power structure. It never hurts to have a few gofers who can change a law, ease a regulation or smooth over certain misunderstandings. Pols don't get it; they're grubby street urchins who are allowed into the ball to serve hors d'oeuvres.

But the corporate community also has large quantities of things that the Ryans and Daleys desperately want: power, access to money, endorsement, legitimization, to name a few. In this game of favor doing, the business leadership holds the high cards.

So, the corporate denizens are just the people to put the corrupt pols in their place. "George, we're running global businesses bigger than yours; don't hand us the same crap you give the voters about your pure heart and clean hands. We and this town can't take it any more. Cut it out, or we'll cut you out."

"Richie, your joke about not knowing about all the graft going on right under your nose makes us laugh. If we were running our businesses the way you run City Hall, we'd be out on our butts. Or, on trial, like those guys from Enron. You're through."

Instead, this town's corporate leadership gathers in well-upholstered clubs, patting themselves on their backs for their "civic involvement" with various booster projects. Or they issue studies telling us what the Chicago area ought to look like in 2020. They jabber on by "decaying infrastructure" and pony up millions for lakefront parks. And gratify themselves with their roles as community leaders whose names appear on the letterheads of visible do-gooder groups.

But get their hands dirty to clean up the swill--our state's most pressing problem--and where are they? Yes, they support such efforts as the Better Government Association and the Chicago Crime Commission, which carry on the fight, with quixotic-like determination. But the unwavering silence of the corporate suites about the costly and destructive system of graft inescapably suggests acquiescence, approval or even complicity.

This is meant to be a broad brush and harsh attack; it wouldn't be necessary if Chicago's and Illinois' business community were united in shutting down career criminals like George Ryan and some in Mayor Daley's inner circle. I don't mean that we should turn government over to a corporate junta. But the 12 honest jurors who convict the likes of Ryan sure could use some help.

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Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

1 comment:

Patrick Henry Reardon said...

One of your best!