Corruption fighters find tradition-bound Chicago a challenge

CHICAGO – When former Illinois Gov. George Ryan got snared in an investigation of racketeering and fraud a few years back, some thought Chicago might get a break from the corruption that has plagued this city for as long as anyone can remember.

Federal corruption hunters were still on patrol in the city and new Gov. Rod Blagojevich was promising a swift end to the boodling and graft.

But last week’s conviction of political fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a top Blagojevich aide who poured $1.6 million into his campaign, made it seem not much has changed.

Witnesses at Rezko’s trial said Blagojevich discussed a job for a campaign donor with a $25,000 contribution lying on the table and dangled state contracts to entice a fundraiser to help bankroll future campaigns. Blagojevich has denied wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors are delving into the governor’s hiring practices and campaign funds while lawmakers talk about impeachment. The investigation comes on top of others that have sent dozens of city and state workers, elected officials and fundraisers to prison in recent years.

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Prosecutors admit they don’t know what it will take to stem the tide of corruption, but they’re not letting up in the effort.

“If morals don’t get to them, I hope the fear of going to jail does,” U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said after the Rezko verdict.

Rezko, 52, was convicted of scheming to use his clout with Blagojevich to squeeze more than $7 million in bribes and kickbacks out of firms that wanted to do business with the state.

Witnesses said he developed the clout through his fundraising prowess and used it to pack powerful state boards with members who would obediently vote as they were told.

The two-month trial drew the national spotlight because Rezko also was a key fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama, the probable Democratic presidential nominee. Obama figures Rezko raised $250,000 for his Senate and state legislative campaigns but nothing for his presidential race.

Obama was barely mentioned at the trial and none of the evidence suggested that he had done anything wrong.

Blagojevich fared far worse.

Witnesses said he repeatedly tied campaign money to state payroll jobs and state contracts.

Blagojevich’s office has said he knew nothing of the shadowy doings that emerged in testimony. But lawmakers in Springfield are already talking about impeachment and a freewheeling Democratic primary for governor is expected in two years.

Chicago’s tradition of corruption goes back to the 1890s when the so-called Gray Wolves of the City Council stuffed their pockets with bribes. One alderman was celebrated as the Prince of the Boodlers.

“Chicago ain’t ready for reform,” old-time saloonkeeper Alderman Mathias “Paddy” Bauler once cackled.

Sometimes it seems little has changed.

Ryan, a Republican, was convicted of using state funds to run his campaigns, handing out state contracts to lobbyist pals and killing an investigation of widespread bribery in the drivers licensing division. He began serving a 6 1/2-year prison term last year.

In Chicago’s city government, dozens of officials and others have gone to jail in recent years in a federal investigation of payoffs and patronage.

Federal agents discovered that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of city-owned asphalt was sold illegally to contractors. What made it worse, truckers were paid with taxpayer dollars to haul away the stolen asphalt.

Investigators have found that far from being applauded for rooting out corruption, many people were angry at them for interfering with business.

“It’s sort of this sense of wink, wink, nod, nod, it keeps the trains running on time, it’s the grease that makes the machine work,” says former federal prosecutor Patrick M. Collins, who spearheaded investigations focusing not only on Ryan but on hiring fraud and payoffs at City Hall.

Political patronage – hiring doorbell-ringing precinct captains who get out the vote for the mayor and his friends on Election Day – was largely curtained by court order three decades ago. But that order has been largely ignored as city officials filled 13,000 jobs on the payroll.

This year, a former official known informally around City Hall as the mayor’s “patronage chief” went to federal prison for cooking up bogus records to hide the fact that politics has been the key factor in hiring. One supposedly qualified applicant was even found to be on duty in Iraq the day a report said he took his oral examination for a city job.

Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, says tough prosecution is the solution to corruption in the short term. But in the long term only well informed and concerned voters can bring change, he says.

“Otherwise,” he says, “the corrupt politicians are just going to wait for the storm to pass and prosecutors to move on and go back to what they were doing.”