Over the past few days, remarkably wide agreement has emerged among reporters, pundits and bloggers, from left to right, to the effect that Governor Rod Blagovich’s alleged misconduct is so out of the ordinary as to make you wonder if he’s “nuts” or “delusional.”
The sad truth is that Blagogate is just another example of conduct that is all too commonplace among politicians of both parties. Although not so unusual, it is far more more dramatic than most corruption cases, because it involves the Senate seat of the man who was just elected President, and because the FBI actually bugged the Governor’s office and has him on tape, complete with [bleeping] expletives.
The last time we had such vivid and shocking evidence of crude venality in high places was in Abscam, when we could watch one Congressman after another meet with a supposed “Arab sheik” and sell their offices for cash.
This kind of thing is certainly “the Chicago way” but it may not be too much of a stretch to look at it as “the American way.” One insightful, smart take on this comes from veteran Democratic pollster and consultant, Doug Schoen, who writes:
To be sure, what has appeared in the news has been shocking for those who are somewhat removed from the world of politics. But while what Blagojevich did is undeniably beyond the pale, it is frankly much more common in the political world than anyone has been willing to acknowledge.
But this time, we have it on tape:
Yes, the wiretaps reveal clear and unambiguous evidence that Blagojevich hoped to get something in exchange for the appointment. But this kind of horse trading, in my experience, goes on all the time. It usually isn’t articulated as bluntly as it apparently has here, though–and there usually aren’t as many wiretaps marshaled as evidence.
While Governor Ryan’s blazing the trail for Governor Blagojevich should be proof enough that Rod is no innovator, I thought it would be fun to look at some other cases in the recent past, which include these in the great state of Illinois (remember, these are only the guys who got caught):
- Governor Daniel Walker was convicted in 1987 of wrongdoing in connection with the savings and loan scandals and sentenced to a federal penitentiary.
- Governor Otto Kerner, who served from 1961-68, was convicted of bribery, conspiracy, income-tax evasion, mail fraud and perjury.
- Secretary of State Paul Powell was found with $800,000 in cash in a shoe box in his hotel room, but was never convicted. He died in 1970.
- State Treasurer Jerry Cosentino was convicted on check kiting charges in 1992.
- And of course, wheeler dealer Tony Rezko was convicted earlier this year 16 federal felony corruption charges.
Ah, but special kudos are due the Chicago Board of Aldermen for what may be a record-setting conviction rate for a single public office! Consider:
- Alderman Arenda Troutman was arrested and charged with bribery in 2007.
- Alderman Percy Giles was sentenced to three years in prison for racketeering, extortion, among other things, in 2000.
- Alderman Lawrence S. Bloom was sentenced to six months in 1999 for filing a false tax return (what a boy scout!).
- Alderman Jesse J. Evans got 41 months in prison in 1997 for racketeering, extortion, conspiracy, attempted extortion, mail fraud, influence peddling, filing false tax returns, and obstruction of justice (now that’s what I call a record!).
- Alderman Virgil E. Jones Jr. drew 2 1/2 years in prison for extortion in 1999.
-Alderman Joseph A. Martinez pleaded guilty in 1998 to putting “ghosts” on the payroll and sentenced to five months in prison.
- Alderman Ambrosio Medrano pleaded guilty to extortion in 1996 and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
- Alderman Allan J. Streeter pleaded guilty to extortion and filing false income tax returns and was sentenced to prison in 1998. (What’s with all these pleas? Are there no real men ready to take the weight left in the Windy City?)
- Alderman Fred B. Roti was sentenced to 48 months in 1993 for racketeering, conspiracy, and bribery, among other things.
Phew! Not to outdone by their colleagues at City Hall, Illinois state legislators have been doing their part:
- In 1992, State Representative James DeLeo was caught in the “Operation Greylord” investigation of corruption in Cook County, indicted by a federal grand jury for taking bribes, negotiated a guilty plea, and got probation.
- In 1997, State Representative Joe Kotlarz was convicted and sentenced to jail for theft and conspiracy for pocketing in about $200,000 for a sale of state land to a company he once served as legal counsel.
- In 1999, State Senator Bruce A. Farley got 18 months in prison for mail fraud.
- And State Senator John A. D’Arco Jr. served time in prison for bribery and extortion.
OK, I admit I’m beating up pretty hard on Chicago, so here’s a recap of some of the greatest hits of American political corruption over the past three decades. Let’s start with some governors:
- Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton (1976-1979) lost his reelection bid after exposure of a bribery scandal. Before leaving office, he issued a large number of pardons to convicted felons, apparently in exchange for bribes.
- Rhode Island Governor Edward D. DiPrete (1985-91) pleaded guilty to bribery, extortion and racketeering.
- Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel was convicted of mail fraud and racketeering in 1977.
- Arkansas Governor James Guy Tucker, Jr. was convicted of fraud cnspiracy in 1996.
- Then there was Vice President Spiro Agnew who resigned his office to face corruption charges involving his years as Maryland Governor. He was convicted in 1973.
- Alabama Governor Don Siegelman was found guilty of bribery, mail fraud and obstruction of justice in 2006 and sentenced to 88 months.
- Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards was convicted of extortion in 2000.
- Connecticut Governor John Rowland resigned in 2004 due to a corruption ivestigation. Later, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and tax fraud and served 10 months in a federal prison.
- Last but not least, who can forget New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey who resigned from office in 2007 under a cloud for appointing his alleged male-sex partner as the sate’s homeland security director. (Jim really had to Pay to Play.)
Yet, year after year, Congress remains home to a mother lode of illegal dealings involving money (not to mention all sorts of sexual hi jinks!).
The Abscam boys are still, IMHO, recent history’s kings of Capitol Hill corruption. In this 1980 FBI sting, fake ‘Arabs’ tried to bribe 31 Congressmen. A mere six were convicted, but many others were tainted.
- New Jersey Senator Harrison “Pete” Williams led the pack, being convicted on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy and became the first U.S. Senator to go to prison in 80 years. Five members of the House were also convicted — John Jenrette of South Carolina, Richard Kelly of Florida, Raymond Lederer of Pennsylvania, Michael Myers of Pennsylvania, and Frank Thompson of New Jersey. (The Feds also bagged a New Jersey state senator and members of the Philadelphia city council along the way.)
- Bronx Rep. Mario Biaggi was convicted in 1988 on 15 felony counts of obstruction of justice and accepting illegal gratuities.
- Speaker of the House Jim Wright of Texas, no less, resigned in 1989 after an investigation into improper receipt of $145,000 in gifts.
- Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois (there I go again) big shot, was caught up in the great Congressional Post Office Scandal of the early 1990s, was convicted of heading a conspiracy to launder Post Office money through stamps and postal vouchers, and got 18 months in the slammer.
- Rep. Buz Lukens of Ohio was convicted in 1995 on five counts of bribery and cnspiracy and served a year in prison.
- Rep. Edward Mezvinsky of Iowa pleaded guilty in 2001 to 31 charges of bank fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud.
- Rep. Jim Traficant of Ohio was found guilty in 2002 on 10 felony counts of financial corruption, sentenced to eight years in prison, and expelled from the House.
- House Majority Leader Tom Delay of Texas, after years of ethics probes and reprimands, finally got his in 2005. He was indicted and later resigned from the House.
- Rep. Duke Cunningham of California pleaded guilty in 2005 to charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail and wire fraud, and tax evasion and was sentenced to more than eight years.
- Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana — he of the $90,000 in cash stashed in his freezer — was indicted in 2007 on 16 charges of corruption for accepting bribes and defeated for reelection last month.
- Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, without whom no list is complete, at 85 with 40 years in the Senate, was snared in a sweeping federal probe of political corruption in his state and convicted last October on seven counts of bribery and tax evasion.
I have to add one more, a case that is still working its way through the system, because it’s becoming a personal favorite:
- Massachusetts State Senator Diane Wilkerson, a rising star in her state’s politics, resigned a few weeks ago after being indicted by a federal grand jury on eight counts of alleged corruption. Wilkerson is accused of taking over $23,000 in bribes. The FBI has video and audio recordings of many of these alleged acts, including a video tape of Wilkerson stuffing bribe money into her bra.
So, what was that about Blagojevich’s conduct being so over the top that he must be crazy?