Denver Bar Association
March 2009
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Something Stinkin' in the Land of Lincoln

by Craig Eley

I grew up in Illinois and on Inauguration Day this year, an old classmate of mine e-mailed that President Obama "will give people someone famous to associate with Illinois and Chicago instead of Al Capone."

I restrained myself from writing back to say that the last thing Illinois should worry about is the enduring image of Al Capone.

On the morning of Dec. 9, 2008, a month after the 2008 elections, the TV cameras captured Milorad Blagojevich, the Democratic Governor of Illinois, as he was arrested by the FBI in his pajamas. Blagojevich, known to his friends as "Rod," has been accused of trying to sell Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat. (At least Blagojevich was entrepreneurial. By comparison, Colorado’s governor also recently had a senate seat to fill, but he just gave the thing away!)

Compared to a number of previous Illinois governors and other officeholders, Blagojevich’s charges seem not only minor, but perhaps expected. Three fairly recent previous Illinois governors have found themselves wearing prison stripes after leaving office.


The Blagojevich scandal grabbed our attention because the former governor's brazen words were captured by government wiretap, and conveyed a huge ego and a sense of self-entitlement.


Most recent, Republican George Ryan (Blagojevich’s immediate predecessor, 1999–2003) is currently federal inmate No. 16627-424 at a medium-security facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. Ryan was convicted of racketeering, tax fraud, bribery and lying to the FBI. As Secretary of State, Ryan’s office sold licenses to bad drivers. A truck driver in possession of such a license caused a traffic accident that killed six children in one family. A multi-year investigation landed Ryan behind bars and resulted in the convictions of at least 73 others. At the trial, it was brought out that Ryan always had wads of cash on him, and was fond of booze, expensive restaurant meals and high-stakes poker games. Yet, he only visited his bank seven times in nine years, and withdrew $6,700. Where did he get his stash of cash? Maybe he was just good at poker.

Dan Walker, Illinois governor in the mid-1970s, didn’t see jail time until a decade after he left that office. He got involved in some shady bank dealings. In 1987, he pled guilty to bank fraud and perjury and did 18 months in stir. Walker, a Democrat, sought a pardon from Bill Clinton, but was turned down.

Otto Kerner was Illinois governor from 1961 to 1968. Like Walker, it wasn’t until after his gubernatorial service, — when he was a judge on the federal court of appeals — that Kerner was convicted of bribery and perjury and sent to federal prison. His improbable downfall reportedly came when Marjorie Everett, a racetrack owner, was asked by the IRS about some deductions she had made on her income tax returns. She replied that the deductions were for bribes, which she considered to be an ordinary expense of doing business in Illinois. Kerner was prosecuted by James Thompson, who himself later served several terms as governor of Illinois from 1977–1991.

Although Republican Thompson put Democrat Kerner behind bars in 1973, today Thompson is representing Republican George Ryan (who was Thompson’s lieutenant governor) on a pro bono basis. It reportedly has cost his firm $10 million so far. Thompson’s latest effort was to try to get Ryan out of the hoosegow by prying a pardon out of George Bush during his final days in office. This was unsuccessful, and now Thompson is plotting his next legal move. Ryan’s hope is that his acquaintance with another Illinoisan, Barack Obama, may be his ticket out of Indiana.

Perhaps the most notorious, recent Illinois politician is Paul Powell. Though he wasn’t ever governor, he died in 1970 of a heart attack while serving as Illinois secretary of state. Having no heirs, his residence was inventoried by associates, who found a closet containing $800,000 in cash, which was crammed into suitcases and shoeboxes. Also found in the closet were 49 cases of whiskey, 14 transistor radios and two cases of creamed corn. It looked as though Powell was preparing for something, but no one seems to know what, what with Y2K being three decades away.

It was surmised that Powell came by all this cash because many Illinois residents made out their vehicle registration checks each year payable to "Paul Powell." A career civil servant, Powell had never made more than $30,000 a year, yet he left an estate of about $4.6 million. He bequeathed $1.5 million to the Johnson County Historical Society Museum, a museum with two rooms of antique farm implements and a budget of $200 per year.

This panoply of miscreants also includes a slew of Chicago city council members, judges, state legislators, mayors, building inspectors, dogcatchers and even a couple of Illinois Supreme Court justices. Chicago Tribune writer John Kass once said that the state is "as corrupt as Louisiana, but without the food;" however, Illinois ranks only as the "Sixth Most Corrupt State" by the Corporate Crime Reporter, a national newsletter.

The Blagojevich scandal grabbed our attention because the former governor’s brazen words were captured by government wiretap and conveyed a huge ego and a sense of self-entitlement. Blagojevich, who was said to have had presidential aspirations, was sent down the river by his own words alone.

A day before his arrest, even though he was aware that he had been under investigation for more than a year, Blagojevich said at a press conference, "If anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead!"

His bring-it-on attitude echoed one of Colorado’s presidential aspirants, Gary Hart. The former senator 20 years ago challenged reporters to, "Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored."

Well, they did and they weren’t. They found the presidential front-runner cavorting on a yacht called "Monkey Business," and his alleged affair ended his run for the White House. The double-dog-dare-you challenge seems to have worked out even worse for Blagojevich than it did for Hart. At least Hart never faced an indictment.

Racketeering, tax fraud, perjury, theft, conspiracy, bribery and many other major crimes have been committed by Illinois officials. Alphonse Capone? A piker. He only got nailed for not paying income tax, an oversight that today wouldn’t necessarily even prevent a politician from being named to the president’s cabinet.

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