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Column Thu Mar 04 2010
Who can blame television viewers for chuckling and shaking their heads when watching indicted ex-Governor Blagojevich perform on the Today Show? A New York Times columnist says our political culture is the "most awful." Expect more of the same with the stalled Blago trial begins this summer.
While this sort of coverage continues, let's get specific for a moment, and talk about solutions for one section of local government that doesn't get much play on the cable networks or other national outlets: Cook County.
The 17 elected members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners control a behemoth of a budget that clocks in at more than $3 billion annually. They run a massive health care system, the county courts, some highways and the forest preserve.
How has county performed over the last 40 years?
Not so well, to put it charitably.
In a recent report, researchers, including myself, from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Better Government Association provide a partial roster of nearly 150 convicted Cook County government officials and a description of their schemes. There has been ghost payrolling, of course. A torrent of crooked contracts. Bribes, naturally. And income tax evasion, theft and illegal campaign contributions, to boot. One egregious example was Marie D'Amico, the daughter of former Ald. Tony Laurino and wife of city's streets and sanitation department commissioner John D'Amico. Marie D'Amico held at least two ghost payroll jobs at the county for which she did no work. She also was employed by the city.
Then there was Judge Thomas J. Maloney. He was caught in Operation Greylord and convicted of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes to fix felony cases and even murder trials. Remember that the actual number of corrupt officials and their cohorts over the last few decades is several times greater than the nearly 150 we have listed. For each convicted corrupt official, there are a dozen or more individuals involved in the same or similar schemes that haven't been caught. Various county agencies are filled with conflicts of interest, often resulting in contracts being given to friends, sons or cousins. These relatives don't pay direct bribes. They simply, in Chicago parlance, have "clout." This results in hiring the unqualified and in granting contracts with theft written in between the lines. Scandals have emerged through many different units of county
government, including the sheriff's office, the assessor's office, the treasurer's office, the President's Office of Employment and Training, the court system, forest preserve district and the highway department. This pervasive pattern and culture of corruption that must be changed if county government is to provide honest, transparent and effective
government at a cost that we taxpayers can afford.
Some needed reforms we propose in the report are:
• Extend campaign finance legislation to establish a $1,500 cap on campaign contributions from all individuals and groups;
• Ban contributions by county employees to the election campaigns of their bosses;
• Amend the county ethics ordinance to prohibit double-dipping or gift solicitation;
• Expand transparency at county government in terms of sole-source or
no-bid contracts, Shakman-exempt positions and subcontracts greater
• Complete and publish a forensic and performance audit of all units of county government;
• Improve enforcement of existing laws and make the work of the inspector general's office more visible to the public.
In November, Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, the Democratic candidate, former state legislator and Republican Roger Keats and Tom Tresser, a Green Party candidate, will compete for Todd Stroger's post. Voters rejected Stroger's 38-month reign as president of the county board by wide margins on the Feb. 2 primary day. The Better Government Association has called upon all candidates for county board president to adopt the report's recommendations. We'll see if they sign the pledge.
More important, we'll learn next year if they will keep their word.
Otherwise, perhaps we deserve our reputation as a national laughingstock.
For the full report, visit here.
Simpson teaches politics at the University of Illinois-Chicago. This column was first published in Chicago Journal.