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How does corruption impact democracy? Take a look at Illinois

Flanked by attorneys, businessman James T. Weiss at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after being sentenced to 66 months in prison, Oct. 11, 2023.
Ashlee Rezin
Chicago Sub Times
Flanked by attorneys, businessman James T. Weiss at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after being sentenced to 66 months in prison, Oct. 11, 2023.

Once again, public corruption was on the docket in a wood-paneled courtroom in downtown Chicago’s historic federal building.

It was October, and newly convicted Chicago businessman James Weiss was about to learn how much time he’d have to serve for bribing two state legislators and lying to the FBI.

While not a household name, Weiss came with real machine clout. His father-in-law, who was not charged, is Joe Berrios, the former Cook County assessor, chair of the Cook County Democratic Party and friend of now-indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Before sentencing Weiss to five-plus years in prison, U.S. District Judge Steven Seeger scolded the defendant for helping “solidify the city of Chicago as the capital of corruption.”

The judge also embodied the frustrations of a whole state by asking in open court:

“Why does public corruption keep happening? … Why Chicago?”

To Seeger’s point, repeating the same mistake over and over again is, as the saying goes, the definition of insanity. And corruption-exhausted Illinoisans would be excused if they thought it was insane how the same kind of criminal graft keeps feasting on their government institutions, over and over again.

Plenty of forces enable public corruption to thrive in Illinois — loophole-ridden state ethics laws, policymakers unwilling to confront the problems head-on, and a drastically shrunken nonpartisan press corps that once kept a close eye on political chicanery.

Perhaps the more consequential question, though, centers on the effect Illinois’ corruption carousel is having on the health and wellbeing of the state’s democracy. WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago are examining the challenges to our democracy as part of the Democracy Solutions Project. Corruption ranks high for many as an impediment.

But measuring the precise cost of public corruption is no easy task. Sometimes, the problem is wrapped in contradiction.

One example of that contradiction is research that equates rampant wrongdoing by public officials with voters no longer participating in elections. In Illinois, that doesn’t appear to have been the case.

But other studies track with Illinois’ experience — that corruption shakes voters’ faith in public institutions and actually may impose a costly financial premium on people.

The inertia-hazed manner in which state policymakers contemplate — or choose not to contemplate — laws to police government corruption leaves the onus on federal prosecutors in Chicago. And they have pursued that responsibility with zeal.

Last year, the U.S. attorney’s office in the Northern District of Illinois secured convictions in more than 91% of all the cases it charged. And if that record wasn’t sobering enough for defendants, actual acquittals from either a judge or jury amounted to less than 1% of all cases in the district, Justice Department data shows.

When looking specifically at public-corruption cases, the 32 convictions obtained by Chicago federal prosecutors stood at an eight-year high in 2021, the most recent year for which the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section has published data about that specific brand of crime, records show.

Those numbers don’t include what’s left from the noisy, prosecutorial buzzsaw that has clear-cut its way through the Illinois Capitol, City Hall and Chicago’s most influential corporate boardrooms during the past year.

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is expected to go on trial in 2024 on corruption charges.
Nam Y. Huh
Associated Press
Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is expected to go on trial in 2024 on corruption charges.

So far in 2023, federal prosecutors in Chicago won convictions against four former Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists, including the company’s ex-CEO, Anne Pramaggiore. A jury found them guilty on all counts for conspiring to bribe Madigan.

In another case, Madigan’s former chief of staff, Timothy Mapes, was convicted of lying to a federal grand jury in an effort to stymie the bribery investigation into the ex-speaker.

In yet another case, a federal jury continues to hear evidence in the extortion, racketeering and bribery trial of former Chicago Ald. Edward Burke, who sat on the City Council for a record-breaking 54 years. His trial is considered one of the most impactful cases the feds have brought here since sacking two governors, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

And next April, Madigan himself is scheduled to go on trial in his own racketeering and bribery case. While tied to ComEd’s wrongdoing, the case against the legendary Madigan also focuses on his alleged illegal efforts to drum up business for his law firm and alleged strong-arming of AT&T Illinois in exchange for political favoritism.

Combined, it’s a dizzying amount of convicted and alleged wrongdoing that has made for a highly cynical electorate.

“All of those [cases] have informed the public that they shouldn’t trust their public officials,” said Dick Simpson, a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“And that’s been a negative effect throughout our politics at every level — the level at which people want to contact their public officials [and] the level in which they have faith in the government decisions that are made.”

How corruption in government breeds cynicism

Simpson, a former alderman who once served with Burke, has become such an authority on public corruption that federal prosecutors in the ComEd case wanted to call him as a witness last spring. They wanted him to explain how Chicago’s political machine worked, though defense objections succeeded in keeping him from the stand.

For his part, Simpson sees that machine is still humming.

“Since 1976, there have been more than 2,100 people convicted of public corruption in Illinois; 1,800 of those were in the Chicago metropolitan region,” he said. “So the cynicism is somewhat justified.”

Polling has borne out what Simpson says regarding how Illinoisans have been soured by public corruption.

In 2012, a survey by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale found that more than three in four respondents believed corruption was widespread, and roughly three in five respondents thought Illinois was more corrupt than other states.

More recently, when WBEZ and the Sun-Times surveyed likely Republican voters ahead of the June 2022 GOP gubernatorial primary, they ranked corruption as the second-most important issue confronting Illinois, alongside crime.

And in September, a national poll conducted by Pew Research found widespread disillusionment with the nation’s elected officials, with nearly one in three believing their elected officials were self-centered, dishonest and unethical.

One danger of widespread voter cynicism is voters might no longer participate in elections or believe their votes matter.

A 2010 study in Louisiana, where corruption has flourished over the years, documented how those who believed their state government was becoming more corrupt were less prone to vote because they doubted their votes would matter.

“Citizens not only lose confidence in government officials when corruption increases, they also lose confidence in the institutions of government and in the political process — which means policymakers may find less support for their proposed and adopted policies,” that study concluded.

A 2015 study of elections in Mexico by researchers at Yale University, Princeton University and

Ottawa University found that corruption led to a nearly 3% drop in voter turnout, and a nearly 3% drop in votes for the incumbent party and votes for the challenger’s parties.

Illinois appears to have defied that trend.

A person holding their palms out with an "I Voted" sticker in them. A WBEZ analysis finds voting patterns have not waned in light of decades of high-profile corruption cases in Illinois.
Manuel Martinez
A WBEZ analysis finds voting patterns have not waned in light of decades of high-profile corruption cases in Illinois.

How corruption affects voting

A WBEZ analysis of total statewide ballots cast and voter registration totals during the past dozen general elections dating back to 2000 found that participation in Illinois elections actually increased at percentages greater than the state’s population gain during the same period.

Looking at just gubernatorial elections between 2002 and 2022, state election records show the number of total ballots cast statewide grew by more than 13%. Likewise, statewide voter registration totals grew by more than 15% during the period.

By contrast, population gains in Illinois between 2000 and 2020 stood at slightly more than 3%, U.S. Census data shows.

Becky Simon, president of the League of Women Voters of Illinois, posits that when corruption is uncovered, it may actually spur more voters to the polls who want to root the crooks out.

“Corruption happens. But in spite of corruption on the part of individual elected officials, voters still have confidence in American democracy,” said Simon. “That is what the League sees. That is why voters are going to the polls. They were voting that they had faith in our democracy.

“When corruption is exposed, voters are ready and eager to make their voice heard through the democratic process — through voting,” she said.

How corruption becomes a tax

Research has shown corruption can impact other areas, too, including state spending.

In 2014, researchers from Indiana University and City University of Hong Kong analyzed federal public corruption conviction data between 1997 and 2008 and focused on what they regarded as the 10 most corrupt states in the country. Illinois was one of those states.

They hypothesized that collectively, the 10 most corrupt states had annual government expenditures of $1,308 more per capita than in states with average levels of public corruption — effectively, a corruption levy.

The idea was that spending is prone to be elevated in more corrupt states as a result of bigger, potentially “bribe-generating” government expenditures on construction projects, borrowing and salaries, among other things, the study concluded.

State financial records show expenditures drawn from Illinois state government’s main operational account, the general revenue fund, grew from $22.9 billion in Fiscal Year 2000 to $48.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2022.

That represented growth of 110%, far outpacing cumulative inflation of 67%. State healthcare and pension costs were responsible for a large bundle of those greater-than-inflation spending increases.

During that same timespan, federal prosecutors in the Blagojevich case successfully tied corrupt activities to plans for increased state spending.

Blagojevich’s 2011 conviction was built largely around his efforts to personally monetize his appointment of the U.S. Senate seat vacated by then-President-elect Barack Obama. But part of the government’s case against Blagojevich focused on his planned solicitation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Those were linked to his commitment for more than $1.8 billion in increased state spending — on health care and road construction.

An Illinois state worker removes a board containing the photo of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich after Blagojevich was removed from office Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009, in Springfield, Ill.
Jeff Roberson
Associated Press
An Illinois state worker removes a board containing the photo of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich after Blagojevich was removed from office Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009, in Springfield, Ill.

How corruption affects legislation

Corruption has had other financial consequences for Illinois and its residents.

Three years ago, the state’s long association with corruption was a partial factor in the defeat of Gov. JB Pritzker’s prized graduated income tax amendment to the Illinois constitution. Opponents, including billionaire Pritzker nemesis Kenneth Griffin, cited Springfield’s record of corruption in urging against a new income-based tax structure that could yield billions of new dollars.

The ballot initiative’s defeat came mere months after federal prosecutors laid out the first details of ComEd’s bribery scheme involving Madigan. The ComEd bribery also produced a direct cost to millions of ratepayers across northern Illinois as the utility’s balance sheets took on a gold-plated hue.

In last spring’s ComEd trial, a senior company executive testified that one piece of legislation that was part of the Madigan bribery scheme generated a $1.8 billion windfall for ComEd.

That same 2016 law included another $2.3 billion over 10 years for ComEd’s corporate parent, Exelon, to bail out two of its cash-draining nuclear power plants. It was money largely that came from ratepayers, though ComEd has insisted that energy efficiencies allowed under the 2016 law also helped its customers save money.

Northwestern University law professor Juliet Sorensen teaches courses on public corruption and is a former federal prosecutor.

“Corruption … it’s a killer of economic growth and development,” she said. “The ComEd case is a stark example. It looks like the jury understood it to be, as well.

“Some cases are more subtle. A hand-to-hand bribe transaction may not directly impact me in my daily life. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t negatively impact the place I live and the economy that I live in.”

What efforts to stem corruption have been made

For their part, Illinois lawmakers have only taken partial steps to mitigate the negative impact of corruption — and that’s after Pritzker identified the issue as a main priority during his first term.

“We must root out the purveyors of greed and corruption — in both parties — whose presence infects the bloodstream of government,” the governor said in his 2020 State of the State speech.

“It’s no longer enough to sit idle while under-the-table deals, extortion, or bribery persist,” Pritzker continued. “Protecting that culture or tolerating it is no longer acceptable. We must take urgent action to restore the public’s trust in our government.”

It was a speech made one day after former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, pleaded guilty to federal bribery and tax evasion charges. Sandoval admitted taking bribes from the redlight-camera industry. All told, his illegal gains exceeded $250,000.

Sandoval died after his guilty plea from complications of COVID-19 in late 2020.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker speaking to a crowd from a podium in Belvidere, Ill., Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. Pritzker identified stemming corruption as one of his main priorities in his first campaign, and the Illinois legislature has moved on some reforms.
Evan Vucci
Associated Press
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker in Belvidere, Ill., Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. Pritzker identified stemming corruption as one of his main priorities in his first campaign, and the Illinois legislature has moved on some reforms.

In 2021, lawmakers acted on Pritzker’s call. They moved a reform package the governor enacted that included greater disclosure requirements of consultants whom lobbyists hire. That was a central piece of the ComEd bribery scheme with the utility’s secret hiring of several Madigan political associates for no-work consulting gigs.

Another provision in that legislative package barred lawmakers from simultaneously lobbying other governmental entities. That was an outgrowth of the federal case involving Weiss and former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, whose work as a registered lobbyist at City Hall was tied to the bribes he took from Weiss.

Last year, Arroyo was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for federal wire fraud after he was caught on tape offering to bribe a colleague in the state Senate. Seeger was the judge in that case and used Arroyo’s sentencing hearing to deride him as a “corruption super-spreader.”

Last May, with backing from Pritzker, lawmakers moved to bar political contributions from red-light camera companies or their representatives, a response to the Sandoval case. It also came after federal charges were lodged against state Sen. Emil Jones III, D-Chicago, who is awaiting trial for accepting a $5,000 bribe from a red light-camera industry executive.

But for every baby step lawmakers have taken toward fixing corruption, there’s been plenty of legislative marching-in-place on the issue – or in some instances, of making matters worse.

Proposed reforms that could be made

They continue to allow lawmakers to use their campaign funds to pay for their criminal defenses, as Madigan and Burke have done. And, they’ve resisted clarifying state pension law pertaining to corrupt former public officials by taking away their legislative retirement checks if they engage in statehouse-related wrongdoing after leaving office – as now-convicted ComEd lobbyist Michael McClain did.

Action on any of those ideas could carry some deterrence effect.

Earlier this year, WBEZ documented nearly $2 million in state retirement checks that have been paid to a mix of federally charged, convicted and self-admitted felons who once served in Springfield — or, in one case, their survivor.

Sandoval’s widow is drawing his state pension despite his prolific bribe-taking. The list also includes Mapes and Madigan. Mapes can keep drawing checks until his sentencing, and Madigan can keep receiving his pension until a possible conviction.

McClain has had his legislative pension suspended. But he could get it back if Attorney General Kwame Raoul and state retirement officials determine McClain’s wrongdoing as a lobbyist didn’t relate to his time in office in the 1970s and early 1980s. Criminality arising from an ex-lawmaker’s time in office has to be established to trigger felony-forfeiture provisions under existing law to warrant revocation of their legislative pension.

Now-convicted lobbyist Michael McClain takes a phone call outside. Lawmakers have resisted changing laws that would allow taking away legislative retirement checks if politicians engage in statehouse-related wrongdoing after leaving office — as McClain did.
Manuel Martinez
Lawmakers have resisted changing laws that would allow taking away legislative retirement checks if politicians engage in statehouse-related wrongdoing after leaving office — as now-convicted lobbyist Michael McClain did.

Sorensen says the rash of corruption cases should motivate lawmakers to revisit past ethics reform proposals that largely went unimplemented, including a report from a commission headed by former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins and assembled by former Gov. Pat Quinn after Blagojevich’s 2009 impeachment.

Among the panel’s recommendations were:

  • banning political contributions from state-regulated entities, like Commonwealth Edison or gambling entities;
  • giving authority to prosecutors to seek wiretaps in public corruption cases, permitting the attorney general to empanel statewide grand juries in public-corruption investigations;
  • and extending greater powers to state inspectors general.

“If you go back and look at the recommendations of the Illinois Reform Commission, they’re really good,” Sorensen said. “I think they are very thoughtful; and if they were all implemented, I think they would go a long way, honestly, toward changing the culture of corruption in Illinois.”
As things now stand, Sorensen said the repeated wrongdoing by some in the state’s political elite has harmed the overall health of the state’s democracy.

And that goes full circle to another time, to another federal courtroom and another corrupt public official awaiting sentencing.

This time, it was Rod Blagojevich himself, who was in front of U.S. District Judge James Zagel after being convicted by a federal jury on a second try by prosecutors in 2011.

Zagel died last summer but will be remembered for the way he described the damage of Blagojevich’s illegal deeds and how they tore at “the fabric of Illinois.”

“The harm is the erosion of public trust in government,” Zagel said. “If confidence in the integrity of the highest-ranking officer of the state, a sovereign officer, is lost or diminished, things will get worse and not better.”

And here the state sits all these years later.

One could almost take an elevator to their floor of choice at the Dirksen Federal Building to see what prosecutors and Zagel’s successors on the federal bench are seeing on an all-too-frequent basis: As corruption cases continue to mount, things don’t appear to be getting any better in Illinois.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ and was the long-time Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. Sun-Times federal court reporter Jon Seidel contributed to this report.

This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois government and politics for WBEZ and was the long-time Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.