Blowout in the Windy City

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The jailing of Rod Blagojevich marks a new low point in Chicago's murky political history

Maybe that devout Catholic, Richard M Daley, had a point, apropos of the corruption for which his home town and state are legendary. "Look at our Lord's disciples," Chicago's former Mayor, who attended Mass daily, once declared. "One denied Him, one doubted Him and one betrayed Him. If our Lord couldn't have perfection, how are you going to have it in city government?"

Indeed. The disgrace of Illinois' ex-governor Rod Blagojevich, sentenced this week to 14 years in jail for extortion, bribery, and graft, proves that as far as the civic administration of Illinois and Chicago is concerned, perfection is elusive, to put it mildly. Blagojevich is the fourth governor – and at least the 81st public official – of the state to be convicted on criminal charges in the last four decades. But just why is Illinois so much more prone to this sort of thing than neighbours like Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri?

Part of the explanation is statewide. By American standards, Illinois has weak disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws, while a fragmented governing structure of close to 7,000 separate administrative units – from state, city, county and an even more local level – is a recipe for pockets of graft to develop and flourish undetected.

Whether or not Illinois is the most corrupt of all 50 American states is a matter of dispute. By one estimate, corruption – in the shape of scandals, bloated payrolls and padded contracts – costs Illinois taxpayers $500m (£320m) a year. And this in a state facing a budget crisis exceeded only by California, and a 2012 fiscal shortfall of $17bn.

But this culture was not born in Springfield, the sleepy state capital where the Illinois legislature is to be found and governors are supposed to spend most of their time. These days Springfield is above all a museum, celebrating its most famous son, a 19th century lawyer and one-time state legislator named Abraham Lincoln. The real seat of the action lies a three-hour drive to the north-east on Interstate 55.

Indubitably, Chicago is one America's, indeed the world's, great cities, in its magnificent setting on Lake Michigan's shore. The skyscraper was invented there, it was long the country's mercantile and transport hub, a seat of industry and hard work, the "city of big shoulders" of the poet Carl Sandburg. Chicago may not be the state capital, but it utterly dominates Illinois, accounting for half the state's population and half of its Congressional seats in Washington. Inevitably, it has set the state's political style.

That style grew from the city's explosive growth, from swampy village of a few hundred souls in the 1830s into to an urban centre of 120,000 by the time Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Those who ran the place, supervising this expansion, wielded huge power. Thus was born an alliance between venal city government and organised crime, and thus emerged the notorious "Outfit" of the early 1900s that would later produce Al Capone. The mayor in Capone's day was "Big Bill" Thompson, derided even then by the local press for making Chicago an international laughing stock, famous for its "moronic buffoonery" and "unchecked graft".

All the while there developed the Chicago "machine" – the trading of public jobs, contracts and other services for votes and political support. The Windy City may not have invented the practice, but few raised it to a higher artform than Chicago's mayors, not least the Richard Daleys, father and son, who between them led the city for the best part of half a century.

In Chicago, power has historically been wielded like a club – often in pursuit of money. Mike Royko, the late and legendary Chicago Sun-Times columnist proposed a new city motto, "ubi est mea", or "where's mine?" As Mr Rokyo explained, "this town was built by great men who demanded that drunkards and harlots be arrested, while charging them rent until the cops arrived".

Blagojevich's most famous offence may have been the attempted sale of the Senate seat vacated by then President-elect Barack Obama (under Illinois law to be filled by gubernatorial appointment). But an even more typical example of his modus operandi is to be found on the tapes of the FBI wiretaps that nailed him, in an exchange with Alonzo "Lon" Monk, his then chief of staff. "Look, I wanna go to him and say, give us the fucking money," Mr Monk told his boss.

The money in question is $100,000, the "him" is a racecourse owner who would have paid that sum to team Blagojevich in gratitude for a state law that would have given a chunk of revenue from casinos to prop up Illinois' struggling horseracing industry.

But secretly, one suspects, Chicagoans relish their bad-boy reputation. Outwardly they may cringe at the fact that, despite Mr Obama, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey, the most famous of their number in the 20th century remains Capone. Yet Blagojevich was treated like a wayward rock star.

And Chicago has exported its methods far beyond Lake Michigan. It was Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, a priest in Cicero on the city's tough west side before moving to Rome, who led the Vatican's bank, the IOR, into financial scandal and near ruin in the early 1980s.

Closer to home was Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, a product of the Daley machine, who as chairman of the House of Representatives was Chicago's most powerful politician in Washington before Mr Obama.

But in 1994 "Rosty" was caught using Congressional funds to buy presents for friends and padding his Washington payroll with fake jobs. He went to jail, but even ex-President Gerald Ford was among his sympathisers. "Danny's problem was that he played by the rules of the city of Chicago," Mr Ford wrote later. "They aren't the same rules as every other place in the country lives by, but in Chicago they were totally legal and Danny got a screwing."

Rostenkowski spent just 15 months behind bars, compared with the 14 years meted out to Blagojevich, one of the stiffest punishments for political corruption on record. It is intended as an example. But this Illinois scandal is unlikely to be the last.

Leading by bad example: Abuses of power

Lennington Small

One of the earliest examples of Illinois' corruption problem, Governor Lennington Small was charged with embezzling more than $1m. He was put on trial in 1922, but was eventually acquitted despite strong evidence against him, and returned to his office for seven more years. After his acquittal, four jurors got state jobs.

Paul Powell

Not the most storied figure in Illinois' history, but maybe the most brazen. Powell, the Secretary of State, had applicants for licence-plate registration make out their cheques to him personally. When he died, in 1970, more than $800,000 was found at his home; he left an estate worth $4.6m, despite never earning more than $30,000 a year.

Richard Daley

His father, also Richard, was seen as the founder of Chicago's so-called "machine politics". But while Mayor Daley Jnr, who stood down in 2011 after 22 years in office, was never personally accused of wrongdoing, the whiff of corruption hung around his camp; Robert Sorich, his patronage chief, was one of four advisers jailed in 2006.

George Ryan

Blagojevich's predecessor as Governor, Republican George Ryan, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to the death penalty. But such honours were overshadowed by a 10-year corruption investigation that culminated in a six-year jail sentence. At least 76 others have also been convicted.

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