4 of Illinois’ past 10 governors went to prison
Four of the past 10 former Illinois governors are among the public officials who have been convicted of offenses in Illinois. The state needs stricter ethics reforms to change its culture of corruption.
A rainstorm exposed some of the earliest corruption in Illinois, when it revealed three county commissioners had let a contractor whitewash Chicago City Hall instead of painting it and pocketed the difference. The commissioners were convicted in 1869, kicking off Illinois’ infamous history of corruption.
Now, Illinois ranks second in public corruption convictions on a per capita basis and Chicago ranks first, according to U.S. Department of Justice data for 1976 to 2019.
This culture of corruption has infiltrated the governor’s mansion, with four of Illinois’ past 10 governors spending time in federal prison. An additional two governors were prosecuted for wrongdoing but acquitted at trial. Even current Gov. J.B. Pritzker has come under federal investigation for a toilet removal scheme that resulted in property tax breaks at one of his Gold Coast mansions.
Rod Blagojevich (2003-2009): convicted in 2011
Rod Blagojevich was impeached in 2009 amid numerous allegations of corruption, including an attempt to profit from President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat after his presidential victory. Blagojevich insisted on his innocence after his arrest in December 2008, saying, “I intend to stay on the job, and I will fight this thing every step of the way…. I have done nothing wrong.”
But a conversation secretly recorded by government agents overheard Blagojevich discussing the senate seat, saying, “I got this thing and its [expletive] golden” and “I’m not just giving it up for [expletive] nothing.”
Blagojevich was ultimately convicted in 2011 and served nearly eight years of his 14-year sentence in federal prison before former President Donald Trump commuted his sentence.
George Ryan (1999-2003): convicted in 2006
A fatal crash in 1994 revealed former Gov. George Ryan’s corruption and his “licenses for bribes” scheme when a truck driver crashed into a family’s car and killed six of the children. The truck driver at fault in the deadly accident had received his license through a bribe while Ryan was Illinois secretary of state.
The crash showed the consequences of his for-profit bribery scheme at Ryan’s trial. He was indicted after leaving the governor’s office in 2003 for leveraging his public office and allegedly trading government contracts and leases for personal gain. He went to federal prison in 2007 to serve for the offenses he had committed during his time as governor from 1999-2003 and as Illinois secretary of state from 1991-1999.
Daniel Walker (1973-1977): pleaded guilty in 1987
Former Gov. Dan Walker spent time in federal prison for offenses unrelated to his public office. Walker committed bank fraud and perjury while working at a savings and loan company outside Chicago in the years after serving as governor. He pleaded guilty in 1987 to these criminal offenses from his private dealings and served just 18 months of his seven year prison sentence.
Otto Kerner (1961-1968): convicted in 1973
The first former governor to be convicted of federal corruption charges in Illinois was Otto Kerner, who was convicted for bribery involving horse-racing, conspiracy and income tax evasion. ”Mr. Clean” – Kerner’s nickname as governor – was accused of trading political favors for racetrack stock he secretly purchased in 1966 while governor.
At the time of his conviction in 1973, he was a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson. Kerner’s corruption conviction not only made him the first Illinois governor to be convicted of a crime, but also made him the first sitting appellate judge to be convicted in U.S. history.
Acquitted at trial: Len Small (1921-1929) and William Stratton (1953-1961)
Two former governors, Len Small and William Stratton, were charged with crimes but eventually acquitted.
Small was indicted while governor on charges of embezzlement committed during his time as state treasurer. Eight of the jurors who acquitted Small eventually landed state jobs during his tenure in the executive office.
Stratton was indicted after leaving office on charges of tax evasion. The indictment charged he had evaded taxes on unreported income in four of his years as governor.
Toilet scandal in the governor’s mansion?
A contractor removed all the toilets in one of Pritzker’s Gold Coast mansions – and promptly reinstalled a single working toilet in Pritzker’s “hangout/meeting area” after the mansion was deemed uninhabitable. The county inspector’s evaluation cut Pritzker’s property tax bill by $331,000.
An investigation in 2018 by the Cook County inspector general described the incident as a “scheme to defraud,” and Pritzker pledged to repay the money when it was exposed during his gubernatorial campaign. The Pritzkers came under federal investigation following the scandal, making Pritzker yet another Illinois governor whose actions have been called into question for corruption.
Moving forward with a new ethics legacy
On March 2, former long-serving Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan was indicted by a federal grand jury on racketeering and bribery charges, adding yet another high-ranking public official to the list of Illinois lawmakers who have broken the public’s trust and come under scrutiny for corruption.
The passage of Senate Bill 539 – the omnibus ethics package signed by Pritzker last October – was an overdue first step for Illinois to break with the corrupt practices that defined the legislative process under Madigan. But more is needed for Illinois to shake off its reputation for corruption in public offices and to ensure public officials are held to high standards of transparency, accountability and fairness. Illinois Policy Institute experts have formulated further steps to bring permanent change, including:
- At least a one-year buffer between the time a lawmaker leaves office and becomes a lobbyist. This would create a longer “cooling-off” period and bring the lobbying restrictions of Illinois more in line with other states.
- Empower the legislative inspector general to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses and to publish their findings of wrongdoing without first seeking permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission. Lawmakers should also consider adding a ninth member – a non-lawmaker – to the Legislative Ethics Commission.
- Include the financial interests of filers’ immediate family members on statements of economic interest.
- Eliminate loopholes that would allow lawmakers to lobby other units of government. One such loophole is that the bill language only restricts lawmakers from being employed as lobbyists for a firm registered to lobby the unit of government they serve. This bars lawmakers from working as lobbyists for big firms, but allows them to open their own shops and get around that restriction.
Ethics reforms may not stop Illinois from sending a fifth governor to prison, but they offer tools to combat corruption and send the message that Illinois is done with the old way of doing business.