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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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Many people will be angry about the George Ryan corruption scandal because it will taint the admirable thing he did in imposing a moratorium on the death penalty, thereby sparking a national debate on the morality and humanity of the institution of state-regulated capital punishment. Some people will be angry because they will view it as a political witchhunt, perhaps even a power grab by ambitious, popular U.S. Attorney-Northern District Patrick Fitzgerald.

Most of us are angry because news of the scandal was the media equivalent of an enormous billboard: For $ale, The State of Illinois.

Illinois was once known as the wild frontier where drunken traders mingled with local Indians. In the early to middle 19th Century, it was the center for white slavery/prostitution, a gin-soaked prairie where everything and everyone was for sale. Since that time, the country has settled further west for over a thousand miles, but Illinois has remained the Open State, the wild, lawless frontier. Thanks to Operation Safe Road, what we all suspected has become true: no public official has the duty to retreat from the right bribe.

It's not just Ryan, either. Illinois' governors, like Chicago's aldermen, have a long history of corruption, cheating, lying, and otherwise treating their elected office like the rear booth of a smoky bar room. You can come, but come strong and with cash, and anything you want is yours. Before Ryan, Daniel Walker served out his term and then went to the clink for various tax and financial schemes. Before him, Otto Kerner, a Democrat from Cook County, was convicted of bribery and served time in a federal penitentiary. He also, befitting his high office, stooped to committing race track fraud.

Operation Safe Road revealed that it is not just the infamous Cook County Democrats who have dunked their hands in the public till and baptized their friends with that bounty. Indeed, it appears that they have often worked in collusion with the Republican Party, which draws its power from state organizations.

If Chicago is The Great American City due to its absolute love affair with all things profitable, then Illinois is the All-American State, the place for wild frontier politics where only the wily win, and only the winners profit. That a pattern of corruption so deep could still be operating in a major state is a shame not only on the politicians themselves, but on the voters -- on me and you. How many state and local pols will be exposed by the federal government before we start picking and choosing our elected official better? Or is there something about this state that makes it so uniquely corruptible?

If you look at our track record, it really is extraordinary compared to any other state, even compared to the much older colonial states. Consider the major state or municipal level scandals over the last decade or so, the ones that have made national news. There were cases of a few mobsters bribing judges in New York, there were New Jersey Senator Robert Toricelli's corruption and alleged mob ties (which extended, allegedly, to Chicago associates) and Youngstown's Congressman Trafficant. But there are three that stand out, that made national news for all their fantastic, almost pulp-novel details: Operation Greylord, Operation Silver Shovel, and now Operation Safe Road.

In the first, much of the justice system of northern Illinois was investigated, and revealed to be heavily infested by organized crime and vested interests. In that investigation, 56 attorneys were convicted of crimes ranging from RICO (Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organization) violations to wire fraud to extortion. Along with them, 16 judges, 20 police officers and deputy sheriffs, several clerks, and one state representative were convicted -- bringing the total to more than 100 persons convicted. It was the most comprehensive investigation of judicial corruption in American history -- and the most successful.

Operation Silver Shovel was an even bigger shock to the country as a whole. It netted 11 serving or former aldermen, the water commissioner, and a whole host of underlings. Not only did they take bribes, but their stridency in doing so was what shocked even more -- we were all horrified when we heard 25th Ward Alderman Ambrosio Medrano tell the FBI mole, "I work for you now." One alderman solicited campaign contributions from the FBI mole in exchange for city business. When the mole told him that many of the contributors were actually, well, dead, the alderman replied, "Good. The more dead, the better."

Let us not forget Secretary of State Jesse White's alleged strong-arming of business people to donate to a fraudulent charity that may have funneled campaign funds directly to him. He still owes $800,000 in campaign fines -- which state Democrats tried to get wiped clean as part of the Bush-on-the-ballot quid pro quo last month. Because the Republican Convention was purposely scheduled to take place as close to September 11 as possible next year, Bush will be nominated after the Illinois deadline to get on the ballot. In order to suspend that law, the Democrats are demanding recompense from state Republicans.

It is that record of corruption that kept the Cook County crowd out of the governor's mansion for so long. Now, it is clear that Illinois' special brand of corruption is bi-partisan. When it comes to crooked pols and slanted state business, Illinois seems to always be in the vanguard, showing the rest of the nation just how its done.

George Ryan did not pursue his office because he wanted to improve Illinois. While rural poor are forced off their small farms by massive corporate enterprises, and little children in Chicago shared bedrooms with rats whose squeals could only be drown out by the wailing of the kids' bellies, George Ryan devised ingenious ways to coordinate bribes, kickbacks, and favors. It was not just a conspiracy to defraud: it was a cruel, cynical prairie sensibility, the type that abandons all notions of civilization. George Ryan is not extraordinary: in our state, he's quite run-of-the-mill.

Ryan and his codefendant Lawrence Warner did not just take cash in an envelope or misuse campaign funds. Reading the enormous 92-page indictment, it becomes clear that what Ryan did was engage in a very calculated pattern of corruption. He knowingly dealt with shadow and dummy companies, accepted loans, kickbacks, and handed out business to companies that subsequently provided loans or cash payments to companies controlled by his friends and family. Ryan had his thumb on most of the state business from 1990-2002, and meticulously controlled that business to benefit himself and his friends. That makes him a racketeer.

They sold specialty licenses for bribes, and channeled the money back to the Citizens for Ryan. That is a corrupt organization.

Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organization. We are suckers as much as victims because for decades we've been drowning in this kind of morass, blind to the conspirators holding our heads under water.

The entire, wretched state of Illinois is a Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organization.

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Pete / December 24, 2003 12:42 PM

I voted for Ryan, because while the license-for-bribes scandal was just surfacing, it also seemed like Glen Poshard was deeply in the hip pocket of the downstate coal industry. I figured Ryan was the lesser of two evils, though that obviously didn't turn out to be the case. The real crime was having to choose between Ryan and Poshard.


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