Government and politics in Illinois have been rife with corruption at all levels for as long as anyone here can remember. Last week, I wrote about recent corruption scandals at Illinois state universities. I also mentioned that three of the state's last seven governors have gone to prison on felony convictions (a fourth was tried and found not guilty). Now the feds led by Northern Illinois district prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald may be closing in on sitting governor Rod Blagojevich (D), according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.
Blagojevich (left) is a political mediocrity who owes his improbable rise to a combination of family connection, the misfortunes of scandal plagued (now jailed) Republican former governor George Ryan and a very flexible conscience that has landed him in more than a few scrapes that betray his sleaziness.
On the day after I wrote about corruption at Illinois universities, one of Blago's top advisers, Christopher Kelly, was indicted for tax evasion. Another Blago pal, real estate and pizza magnate Tony Rezko, goes on trial this coming spring. The indictments fit a pattern we've seen before in Illinois. The federal prosecutor takes down a politician's close associates, squeezing them until they turn on each other and their big shot patron.
An Obama Connection
Readers outside of Illinois may recognize the name, Tony Rezko. Rezko is a longtime Barack Obama friend and patron who made a shady real estate deal with the senator. Even though I prefer Obama to anyone else running on the Democratic side, I don't think the man is as clean as Joe Biden thinks he is. Besides the Rezko deal, there are Obama's ethically questionable investments and Michelle Obama's mind-blowing, overnight pay raise from $121,000/year to $316,000/year right after her husband was elected to the U.S. Senate. Her bosses said she deserved it. I guess they didn't notice that she deserved it until her husband became a U.S. Senator. It's not that anyone has suggested that accepting the raise violated the law, but it isn't exactly a sign of good ethical hygiene, either.
When people say that Obama transcends the usual divisive, partisan politics, they may not fully appreciate that it's because he cut his political teeth in Illinois where ideology and party affiliation are far less important than figuring out how to plug-in to what one Chicago columnist calls the combine uniting politicians of both parties in a culture of corruption.
Anyway, it's easy when discussing one Illinois political scandal to spin off into discussion of other scandals because there are so many scandals and the characters can all be linked in a big game of six-degrees of the federal pen. Actually, it's a much easier game to play than the Kevin Bacon version because there are, at most, only one or two-degrees separating any Illinois pol from the federal inmate population.
Next up for federal prosecutors may be the most slippery Illinois politician of them all, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. They've been taking down his friends, but Daley, who was once the state's top prosecutor, always makes sure that he doesn't know anything about deals and the city money that falls from the sky all over the people standing close to him.
Last week we learned of another beneficiary of Richard Daley's ignorance, the mayor's son, Patrick Daley. In 2003, 27-year-old Patrick and a cousin, Robert Vanecko, invested in a sewer firm doing millions in business with the city. The problem is that the contractor illegally failed to disclose Daley family interests in a firm raking in cash from city contracts. Patrick Daley was conveniently unavailable for comment when the story broke last week. He is preparing to ship out for duty in the Middle East. The younger Daley, who was previously employed by a private equity firm, abruptly sold his interest in the sewer firm and enlisted in the military shortly after it became known in 2005 that federal prosecutors were investigating city contracts awarded to mayoral cronies.
If you really want to understand Illinois politics and Illinois politicians, think of the friendly relationship between Richard Daley (D-Chicago) and Jesse Jackson (D-Budweiser). In the right-wing media, the story is portrayed as a tale of Jackson's corruption, but it is more fundamentally about the way politics is conducted in Illinois. Jackson is silent on race politics when it comes to Chicago and Budweiser and the Jackson family lands a beer distributorship, a congressional seat and, more recently, an aldermanic seat. Jackson is just doing politics the way it's done in Illinois; he transcends the divisive approach whenever he's in town.
Update: Another Obama Connection
I see that Daley cousin, Robert Vanecko, turns up in the news again today in this story about the transcendent Barack Obama's role in securing money from a charity for a development project that netted Obama's ex-boss, Allison Davis, $700,000 in consulting fees. Obama admits that he failed to inform the charity of his relationship with Davis when he voted to fund the Davis deal. According to the article, Vanecko [the undisclosed beneficiary of city sewer contracts] is a business partner of Obama's [undisclosed] ex-boss, Davis. Davis is also a business partner of... Tony Rezko.