BOOK REVIEW: How corrupt is Illinois?... '...between 1976 and 2012, the Northern District of Illinois (which includes Chicago) was the single jurisdiction responsible for the greatest number of corruption convictions in the country: there were 1,597 [federal corruption] convictions...'

Just released in time for the Chicago City elections, Corrupt Illinois is a must-read for anyone interested in politics and governance in this state, not only in Chicago, but especially the suburbs and across the state. Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar calls it “the most comprehensive account of corruption in our state ever published.” Gradel and Simpson deserve the public’s thanks for this excellent compilation of facts.

Prior to being a corrupt Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich was a corrupt Chicago congressman. The 5th Illinois Congressional district voted in Rod after his predecessor, Dan Rostenkowski, was sent to prison for corruption. And after Blagojevih went to Springfield as Governor of Illinois, his successor was Rahm Emanuel. BOOK REVIEW: Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality by Thomas J. Gradel and Dick Simpson. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-252-07855 (paperback)

Corruption in this state goes back 150 years, even before the Civil War. We get bits and drabs of it when the media get an “urge,” or when the Feds walk the perpetrators before the cameras. What this study has done is to connect the dots, across time and across the state. To have it assembled in one, very readable account, however, can shock even the cynics among us.

According to the authors, between 1976 and 2012, the Northern District of Illinois (which includes Chicago) was the single jurisdiction responsible for the greatest number of corruption convictions in the country: there were 1,597 convictions, ahead of the Central District of California (Los Angeles) with 1,341 convictions; ahead of the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) with 1,247; and ahead of the District of Columbia, with 1,101.

Yes, we’re #1!

There have been 33 Chicago aldermen and former aldermen convicted and sent to jail since 1973, and two others died before being tried. To put this into perspective: “Since 1928, there have only been fifty aldermen serving in the council at any time. Fewer than two hundred men and women have served in the Chicago city council since the 1970s, so the federal crime rate in the council chambers is higher than the most dangerous ghetto in the city” (emphasis added). Let me emphasize this: “the federal crime rate in the council chambers is higher than the most dangerous ghetto in the city.”

Unfortunately, as we all know, this criminality is not confined to our fair shores. Illinois has the third highest rate by state, and this includes the District of Columbia (DC). Convictions of public officials per 10,000 people is 1.49, putting us behind the phenomenal rate of 18.30% for DC, and 2.27% for Louisiana, but ahead of Tennessee (1.42%), as well as New Jersey (1.11%) and Florida (.99%). As the author’s note, “Altogether, 1,913 individuals were convicted of corruption in federal court between 1976 and 2012….” And this rot includes the top: “Of the last nine Illinois governors, four have been convicted of corruption—getting bargain-priced racetrack stock, manipulating savings and loan banks, covering up the selling of driver’s licenses to unqualified drivers, shaking down contractors for campaign contributions, and trying to sell a US Senate seat.”

Gradel and Simpson systematically discuss corruption in Illinois—and while always focused most heavily on Chicago, they address extensive corruption in the Chicago suburbs, as well as at the state level. They discuss “machine politics and stolen elections” (chapter 2), “the sorry state of Illinois” (3), “aldermanic corruption” (4), “Chicago city haul—nice play on words—(5), “Crook county”—another—(6), “suburban scandals” (7), “police abuse and corruption” (8), “jailbird judges and crooked courts” (9), congressional corruption (10), and finally, “ending the culture of corruption” (11). By the way, each chapter is headed with a good picture of some of the most exemplary practitioners of that particular form of corruption.

Interestingly, the authors try to theoretically understand corruption, so that the public is not left at just swinging at individuals, but to try to really get to the root of the problem. They draw on the work of Rasma Karklins, who studied corruption in the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, to understand this American corruption. (I don’t think a comment is necessary here.) Karklins describes three different types of corruption:

• “Everyday interactions between officials and citizens (such as bribery for licenses, permits, zoning changes, and to pass inspections.

• “Interactions within public institutions (such as patronage, nepotism, and favoritism).

• “Influence over political institutions (such as personal fiefdoms, clout, secret power networks, and misuse of power.”

Gradel and Simpson then note, “We have all three types of corruption in Illinois, and each reinforces the other.”

They further build off the work of Robert Klitgaard, and his book, Controlling Corruption. From that, they write, “We begin our study of corruption in Illinois with the understanding that the use of public office for private gain occurs more frequently when there is a monopoly of power, great discretion in the hands of elected and appointed officials, and a lack of accountability.” Throughout the book, they again and again point to the central place of political machines in this problem. To help us visualize how this works, they provide visual diagrams of both the Richard J. Daley (the old man) and Richard M. Daley (“Ritchie”) machines, so people can see how they worked.

While captivating throughout, what I really appreciated was the chapter on “police abuse and corruption.” What must be kept in mind is that even when there are laws and policies advanced to address identified problems, they are only as good as the extent to which they are enforced.

Gradel and Simpson report a 2006 study by University of Chicago Law Professor Craig B. Futterman and two colleagues, who analyzed “10,149 complaints of excessive force, illegal searches, racial and sexual abuse, and false arrest filed by civilians from 2002 to 2004.” The findings by Futterman and associates:

• “only nineteen of the 10,149 complaints led to a suspension of a week or more;

• “the chances of meaningful discipline for a police brutality complaint was less than 3 percent;

• “only one of 3,837 charges of illegal searches led to meaningful discipline; and

• “over a three-year period, not a single charge of false arrest or planting of drugs or guns led to meaningful discipline.”

And, as they do throughout the book, they point out that not only does this have a real cost in citizen trust of police, but that it has a real monetary cost as well: “In a six-year period from 2006 to 2011, the city paid out more than $282 million, or forty-seven million dollars per year, to settle lawsuits and judgments involving Chicago police officers.”

But then they highlight the “granddaddy” of police abuse cases in the city: the torture cases of Jon Burge, a cop commander who tortured African American suspects on the south side of the city: “Wrongful-conviction and torture cases against Burge and his crew played out over a longer time period. From 1998 to 2013, Burge-related cases cost the city more than ninety-seven million dollars, including settlements and payments to victims, payments of $15,288,388 to outside law firms to defend Burge and other cops, and the cost of representing the city before the special prosecutor.”

In all, a very detailed report of the extent and costs of corruption in Chicago, the suburbs and across the state of Illinois. This book will likely become a “classic” in identifying how corruption affects the citizenry on a day-to-day basis. And they conclude by noting that, “The financial cost of corruption is at least five hundred million a year—enough to help solve, or at least lessen, the insolvency of state and local governments in Illinois.”


It’s hard to critique such a well-done and well-written study: its accessibility to readers is going to make this more than just another report. However, there are three levels of approaching this book, and comments are needed.

The first level is at the “retail” level of corruption, and this is the strength of the book. They really detail this. However, I’m surprised that, although they mention his administration, there is so little on Mayor 1%, Rahm Emanuel. They know there are some issues. After discussing Richard M. Daley’s fundraising ability, they note that Emanuel “raised even more money [for his “local” campaign for mayor] than Daley—roughly thirteen million dollars,” and then note, “Emanuel’s mayoral campaign was like the Daley campaign on steroids.”

They recognize that some things have changed under Emanuel, in that “he is even less dependent than Daley on patronage, party ward committeemen, and precinct captains,” and he’s broken up some of Daley’s networks of contractors, etc. And they report he is much more transparent.

They continue: “One thing that hasn’t changed, or changed only for the worst, is that Emanuel continues mayoral control over the Chicago city council, just like his machine-boss predecessors. In fact, he has more control than ever.” They then report 30 divided roll-call votes from May 2011 through March 2013, and found that 21 of the 50 aldermen supported Emanuel 100% of the time, while another 18 voted over 90% of the time with the mayor. This is Soviet-level obsequiousness!

These are good points, but certainly the Emanuel administration is worth much more scrutiny than they gave it. If nothing else, there should have been major focus on how Emanuel has dealt with the field of education, and especially his hand-picked Chicago Board of Education—most of their high-level appointees have never taught in Chicago—and their decisions to close over 50 public schools, their promotion of charter schools, their insane testing program of students, and their internal corruption.

They also do not mention Chicago Magazine’s two-part series from last year on how the police have been “cooking” the crime statistics to make the mayor and police chief look good. In light of the police corruption that is known about, this is a baffling omission.

Nor is there any discussion of Emanuel’s decision to host the meetings of NATO and G-8 here in 2012. Emanuel was on an apparent ego-trip to show the world that HE could hold an international meeting in Chicago without it ending up like 1968. (The G-8 meetings were moved to Camp David.) The mayor shut down much of the city center (“The Loop”), conducted a heavy propaganda campaign against protestors that was designed not only to discredit their politics but tried to cause city residents to fear them, and then placed over 3,000 cops—shoulder-to-shoulder—along the protester’s march route to intimidate them, failing miserably. (To this writer’s knowledge, there’s never been a report of the costs of the NATO meeting to the taxpayer, but with police overtime and lost business, it was probably substantial.) The Mayor certainly showed his disdain for the First Amendment with this one.

Yet, with the exception of the general pass for Emanuel, corruption at the “retail” level—in Chicago, the suburbs and the state—is well covered. Yet it is the “wholesale” level—the systematic level—that the book is lacking.

Most obviously, there is no discussion of the role of the mainstream media in Chicago and its role in enabling corruption. Now, they cite many reports by journalists that have been published in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, and I will give a lot of credit to the individual journalists and to the editors who decided to publish such accounts. As one can see, Gradel and Simpson cited a number of their investigations, etc., which helped them make their argument. The ones that appear are important, because the morning newspapers determine so much of what the TV news deems newsworthy and overwhelmingly shapes TV news coverage to millions of people every day.

But, lacking in this book is a sophisticated understanding of the media and how it works.

Contrary to popular belief, the news media does not simply report the news; i.e., it does not fairly represent all that goes on. (If you doubt this, compare the Tribune’s and Sun-Times’ coverage of public education in the city with that provided by Substance!) Each media outlet decides what is important from its own perspective—based not only on individual editor’s decisions but how the news organization understands its role within the region-side news “structure,” and how it perceives its own interests within the larger social order—and decides to mobilize its resources accordingly. Tied to this, it does not want to “piss off” its’ primary audience, which is not readers but advertisers: after all, being capitalist corporations, their primary goal is to make a profit. Accordingly, what we do not have is a free flow of information, but a highly-constricted flow of information that advances the individual corporate interest of each news organization.

What’s this mean overall? It means that the level of attention provided, in this case, to corruption, is a product of each news organization’s determination. It means that politicians that can potentially help the news organization get its own interests advanced—such as reducing media ownership limitations—are much less likely to get examined than those who cannot. It means that when corruption is exposed, the extent of coverage is determined to a major degree by the newspaper’s editorial board evaluation of how hard to go after it. Yet there is no editorial board—and certainly not in Chicago—that represents the population of the area that it covers: does anyone think these paper’s editorial boards are representative of the city…?

While the amount of campaign funding for Mayor is noted, there is no discussion of how this distorts any semblance of popular democracy in this city. This also feeds back into news coverage: to be able to afford TV advertising, which gets more expensive over time, more and more money is needed; which means those who are able to and do contribute have a vastly disproportionate influence over the politics and (especially) development in this city. (Mayor Emanuel didn’t get the nickname “Mayor 1%” for nothing!) That means their interests and concerns get much more attention that the rest of us, combined.

Also, at the wholesale level, as well, there is some, but little real focus on the political process in Chicago, how this affects gerrymandering, and how this allows such an unrepresentative body to remain in control of the Chicago City Council. Again, we’re led back to a corrupt political process that attacks popular democracy while claiming to support it.

Now, with these comments, this author can be accused of critiquing Gradel and Simpson for not writing “his” book, a book how he would do it. I can accept that, although I argue these are important points that need to be raised.

Yet where I found surprisingly lacking in what they presented was their solutions. After making a strong case about the impact of corruption on the people of this state at a number of levels, their proposals, while good, are quite vague and not well developed. They come up with some great ideas, like public financing, but say little about it. They suggest additional laws should be passed, further limiting the chances for corruption. However, they ignore the reality that laws are only as good as their enforcement and, surprisingly, they ignore this aspect in their solutions.

Based on their evidence, I would suggest that the citizens of Illinois need to make a major focus on qualitatively reducing corruption in this state, and across the state. I would suggest laws against patronage, nepotism and cronyism be strengthened, and then penalties lengthened. I would argue for enhanced law enforcement resources specifically directed against corruption, and requiring the State Attorney General to make this a major focus of her/his office. And then, I would argue for a mandatory sentencing process whereby ANYBODY who serves in a position of public trust—and here, I include every elected and appointed official, and every police officer—and who is convicted of violating such public trust (whether in current office or previous position), then automatically get an enhanced sentencing of three times the maximum sentence, with no chance for parole, probation and/or diversion; that they would loose any pension money or benefit from the state from this job or any other they might have ever had (and while this would probably not be legal for current or past employees, this certainly could be stipulated in all future contracts with employees); and that each convict be required to totally reimburse any entity for any and all monies so misappropriated. And further, conviction on a “public trust” violation would preclude any future employment for any public entity in the State of Illinois, with penalties for anyone who should hire such a person.

A program such as this, while harsh toward offenders, makes much more sense than the governor’s current attack on unions and pensions to address problems in Illinois.


In short, how do I evaluate this book? I think it is excellent as far as it goes, despite my criticisms. I hope it will be widely read, and acted upon. However, I think subsequent projects should enhance the value of this study by addressing the issues presented herein. In short, thanks go to Thomas J. Gradel and Dick Simpson for taking the study of corruption in this state to a totally higher level, while recognizing this is the first, but not the last, of needed studies on this subject. ---

[Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN. A resident of Chicago, he is the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union, UAW #1981.]


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