Federal authorities who this week led Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich away in handcuffs on charges that he, among other things, tried to sell to the highest bidder the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, struggled with superlatives in trying to describe their amazement at the governor's audacity.
"A political corruption crime spree," said U.S. prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. "A truly new low." Added Robert Grant, head of the FBI's Chicago office: "If (Illinois) isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor."
Even Cindy Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform is stunned. "Insane," she said of Blagojevich's plans to exchange the Senate seat for a high-paying job, a cabinet post or ambassadorship in the Obama administration, or tens of millions of dollars for a nonprofit group he would set up and lead. "Delusional," she said.
But is Illinois, the land of Lincoln and Capone, truly the most corrupt? Canary didn't concede the point, but she admits it's harder to find a worse example. "We were relying on Louisiana for a long time," she said, half jokingly.
There's no objective way to say for sure that Illinois is America's most corrupt state. The FBI's Washington headquarters doesn't track such data, though its statistics suggest that Illinois isn't the only dark alley in American politics.
Public corruption cases nationwide have soared by 51 percent since 2003, according to FBI spokesman Bill Carter. More than 1,000 public officials and government employees have been jailed in the past five years, and 680 FBI agents are still working more than 2,500 other corruption cases.
In just the past month, federal authorities wrapped up a six-year corruption investigation in Tennessee that netted 12 arrests, from school board members to state legislators. In Massachusetts, a nine-term state senator was arrested for introducing legislation in exchange for a payoff. And a former New Jersey mayor and his wife were convicted in a case involving liquor licenses.
Still, Illinois appears to have achieved a special status among federal law enforcement officers, who have been arresting Chicago city aldermen at a rate of about one a year for the past 20 years. The Chicago Sun-Times once calculated that 79 Illinois elected officials were convicted on federal corruption charges between 1972 and 2006. In 1991, the Sun-Times ran a front-page story to note that not a single alderman had been indicted that year.
But the Sun-Times numbers don't include the scores of unelected government workers and police officers who also were sent away. In a recent case in which commercial driver's licenses were sold in exchange for campaign contributions, only one elected official, Gov. George Ryan, went to jail, but so did about 35 unelected state employees.
Indeed, Blagojevich is the fourth out of the state's past eight governors to be indicted on corruption charges. Democrat Otto Kerner (1961-68), Democrat Dan Walker (1973-77), and Republican George Ryan (1999-2003) preceded him. A fifth governor, Republican William Stratton (1953-1961), was charged with income tax evasion but later acquitted.
So troubled is Illinois that Blagojevich himself ran, and won election, as the anticorruption, reform candidate. He took over the congressional seat held by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, who in 1996 was sent to prison for misusing his office. Blagojevich then ran in 2002 for the seat vacated by George Ryan, who remains in prison following his conviction on 18 corruption charges.
Blagojevich, who turned 52 the day after his arrest, has been governor for six years, and he has been under federal investigation for the past four. In addition to selling a U.S. Senate seat, Blagojevich is charged with shaking down officials at a children's hospital for $50,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for reimbursing the hospital for pediatric care.
As one high-profile politician after another tumbles in a tangle of corruption, the states themselves are taking steps to crack down—or at least make it clear that the corrupt represent only a tiny minority of all elected officials nationwide. Peggy Kerns, head of the Ethics Center at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said more states are enacting new laws and setting clearer boundaries in hopes of curbing wrongdoing.
"They do not want a skeptical public, a distrusting public," Kerns said of state lawmakers. "They do not want these kinds of things to occur." The problem, though, won't be resolved legislatively. "People have to care," she said. "If the public demands higher standards, it'll happen. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen."
Kerns is traveling the country to discuss ethics with new classes of state lawmakers and, in some states, with established lawmakers as well. She's been invited to speak in states from Alabama to Kentucky to Wyoming, New York, and beyond. Among the states she wasn't invited to visit: Illinois.