Changing Our Corrupt City's Course

This column originally appeared in the "Chicago Journal."

For many years, Chicago has been known as the most segregated city in North America. It is a source of shame.

For just as many years, but more intently since the colorful Blagojevich trials, we have also been known the most corrupt city. Now based on a study by political scientists from the University of Illinois at Chicago, we have the statistics to confirm our dishonorable and notorious reputation.

Since 1976, Chicago and its suburbs in the federal court system's Northern District of Illinois lead all other districts in the country with 1,485 federal convictions of corrupt public officials and businessmen. Others have been convicted in lower courts, resigned in disgrace, or gone undetected.

On a per capita basis, there are more federal public corruption convictions in Illinois than in large states New York, California and Florida. Only the District of Columbia and Louisiana can top Illinois' ratio; though they have fewer total convictions than Illinois, their much smaller populations give them a higher per capita rate of convictions.

By some measures, Illinois is only the third-most corrupt of the 50 states and District of Columbia. We win over our main competitors in corruption such as Louisiana and New Jersey -- you have to go a long way to be worse than Louisiana with its rich gumbo corruption legacy of the famous Huey Long family of crooked governors. But we in Illinois are more crooked than our rivals.

For instance, of the last seven Illinois governors, four have been convicted of corruption -- getting a secret deal on race track stock, manipulating savings and loans, selling driver licenses to unqualified drivers who killed children in car wrecks, and negotiating to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Chicago City Hall qualifies as an equally famous crime scene. Since 1973, 31 Chicago aldermen have been convicted and gone to jail.

The truth is that the governor's mansion and the city council chambers have a far worse crime rate than the worst ghetto in Chicago.

As I testified before Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Ethics Reform Task Force, we can change all this. There is no one silver bullet, but we don't have to stay this slimy. Other cities in the world like Hong Kong and Sydney have gone from corrupt to clean. Even New York City became cleaner than Chicago when they got rid of the Tammany Hall gang of political crooks. We can too.

Some big changes needed. Get rid of the political machine which has been choking this city since the Chicago Fire. Some changes are long term. Reinstitute civics in the public schools to teach government ethics and the cost of corruption. Let eighth graders know that we are the most corrupt city in the country, that more than 1,800 public officials have gone to federal prison in Illinois between 1973 and 2010, and that that corruption costs the taxpayers more than $500 million a year. When they grow up they will not put up with being the most corrupt city in one of the most corrupt states like their parents have.

There are really simple fixes that could be done right now if a corrupt city council and state legislature didn't block them. Allow aldermen and their staffs to be investigated by the city's inspector general if accused of corruption. Don't allow double-dipping on multiple government payrolls. Allow citizens to sue to recover damages if public officials steal public funds. And pass the constitutional amendment supported by Gov. Pat Quinn to let voters enact ethics reforms at the ballot box.

We know how to end most of the corruption and to clear our city's besmirched name. But as Mayor Richard J. Daley taught me when I fought for reform in the City Council in the 1970s, we can't win if you don't have the votes. Unless Chicagoans give a damn, we will never have the votes at the ballot box or in the city council to end the endemic cultural of corruption which has plagued this city since the first public corruption convictions in 1869.

If you care, we can lose our addiction to corruption and leave the hall of shame.

Dick Simpson's full report "Corrupt Chicago: Anti-Corruption Report Number 5" can be downloaded here.

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