Chicago-Area Corruption: Are We Really the Worst?

A new UIC report fingers the Chicago area as the most corrupt region in the country, and Illinois as the third-most corrupt state in America. But look out, pols: eastern Kentucky has a strong game going.

Rod Blagojevich corruption

 

Today a team of UIC researchers, led by prof and former alderman Dick Simpson—the Larry Sabato of Chicago politics—released a report called “Chicago and Illinois, Leading the Pack in Corruption” (due thanks to CBS Chicago for publishing the PDF along with their story). On the Trib homepage, the headline is “Chicago area tops in public corruption: study.”

Keep that in mind: Chicago area. It raises some interesting questions about what public corruption is, how it’s detected, and what “tops” means.

It makes the broad point that the “Chicago area logged the most public corruption convictions of any federal jurisdiction in the United States during the past 36 years,” and that “on a per-person basis, only the District of Columbia and Louisiana had more convictions than Illinois, according to the report” (and the DC number is inflated because of where some cases are tried).

Yeah, I know, dog bites man. The city has an incorporation-long history of public corruption, and it’s clearly a problem. But corruption takes different forms, and rural areas tend to slide under the radar because they’re outside of major media centers (which reduces not only attention, but the sort of investigative coverage that can lead to federal charges). So at the very least I wanted to compare Chicagoland to another area known, if not widely, as a hotbed of corruption: eastern Kentucky.

One of the ongoing problems in central Appalachia is political corruption—not always federal-bust-level corruption, but comfortable clatches of locally powerful men who call the shots. Clay County in eastern Kentucky, arguably the poorest county in Appalachia and one of the poorest in the nation, just saw practically their entire government go to federal prison, or at least the small number of men who basically ran it, led by the poetically named Cletus Maricle:

Smith estimated that Maricle led a scheme that used $400,000 to bribe 8,000 voters during the course of the conspiracy. In addition, Smith added that 150 voters had their votes stolen.

[snip]

Maricle headed up the Clay County board of elections that controlled the outcomes of the primary and general elections for the years 2002, 2004 and 2006.

Court documents also show that Maricle used his position as judge to bribe officials, candidates for county offices, defendants in his court, and family members of defendants in his court.

Clay County has a population of just under 25,000. So Maricle bribed one-third of the entire county. Corrupt Chicago pols wish they could be that corrupt.

Clay is part of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. That encompasses 67 counties with a population of 2,200,354. According to the statistics in the UIC report, there have been 227 federal public corruption convictions in eastern Kentucky from 2001-2011. That’s 1.03 convictions per 10,000 residents.

The Northern Illinois district court, encompassing 18 counties with a population of 9,283,766, has had 367 over that same timeframe. Over the course of the past decade, that’s about 0.39 convictions per 10,000 residents. Even if you give all those convictions to Cook County (population 5,194,675), it’s still only about 0.71 per 10,000. For Chicago, population 2,695,598, it would be about 1.36 if all the convictions in the Northern District were just limited to Chicago.

In other words, even by the somewhat crude measure of federal corruption convictions versus population, eastern Kentucky punches far above its weight (I haven’t gone through all the district courts in the land, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was pretty far up in the rankings).

And rural corruption, to greatly simplify things, is, well, easier. In 1992, Gary Potter of Eastern Kentucky University looked at the corruption of his region in a paper, “Country Comfort: Vice and Corruption in Rural Settings” (PDF):

There is a distinct bias in the study of corruption and crime. Scholarly studies and major criminal justice agency inquiries into the delivery of illicit goods and services are exclusively focused on urban settings. This reflects, no doubt, the spacial concentration of such illicit activity in major urban settings and the tendency of investigative bodies to focus on urban areas. In addition, the largest police departments are obviously urban and tend to draw the greatest attention in the criminal justice literature.

This concentration of attention on urban areas has tended to obscure an important truth in both the study of corruption and the study of organized crime. The truth is that rural areas have drug dealers, bootleggers, prostitutes, gamblers, loansharks, auto thieves, fences, and the like. These criminals provide illicit goods and services on a continual basis and in order to do so, they have reached some kind of accomodation with the social control bureaucracy. While this activity in rural settings has not received the same level of attention as its urban counterpart, it is nonetheless quite real and is becoming more public.

In short, urban corruption gets a lot more attention than rural corruption. I think that’s entirely plausible: cities have lots more cops, academics, and journalists. But Potter also argues that corruption is easier in rural areas—and, I’d add, thus easier to keep secret:

In eastern Kentucky’s rural counties, making these corrupt contacts is far easier than in urban settings. First of all, government is considerably less complex than in a major city. County government is supervised by a “Judge Executive” who acts as the chief administrative officer of the county. Law enforcement usually involves the county sheriff and his deputies and a very small number of local police officers if there is a city located in the county. There is one county attorney and ususally only one or two judicial officers serving the county. Unlike New York or Philadelphia with hundreds of judges, thousands of police officers, dozens of district attorneys and assistant district attorneys and thousands of municipal officials, rural organized crime groups require only minimal contacts to guarantee protection of their illicit activities.

Potter describes an area, several counties in eastern Kentucky, with a relationship to corruption that sounds much more like the Chicago of old, when politicians were much more dependent on criminal enterprises to maintain not just power but order. (Not that such a thing doesn’t exist in Chicago, but as described in David Bernstein and Noah Isackson’s Chicago story “Gangs and Politicians in Chicago: An Unholy Alliance,” it seems to be a more tenuous and awkward connection than in the past.)

It is inconceivable that in these rural counties illicit gambling, prostitution, alcohol, and drugs could be delivered on a regular and continual basis without the knowledge of government officials, law enforcers, and “legitimate” businessmen in the community. But the question remains, why do “respectable” citizens in positions of public trust tolerate this type of activity and even cooperate with it? The data strongly suggest that these corrupt relationships are far more complex than simple bribes and other venal considerations. In fact the data suggests that corruption may be quite functional, not just for organized crime, which finds it necessary, but also for the institutions of social control themselves

[snip]

On the other side of this arrangement, selective enforcement serves a vital control function. The reduction of competition by the criminal justice system limits organizational strain and reduces the potential for violence, thereby facilitating law and order in the community. In the rural counties of eastern Kentucky, where the drug trade has grown so quickly and become so important, selective enforcement allows those charged with social control functions to select allies in the underworld who in turn fashion and enforce a set of norms in the illicit market which serve to enhance social control. The “Cornbread Mafia,” arguably Kentucky’s largest marijuana producing syndicate, is a prime example of a syndicate assisting in the maintenance of order. The “Cornbread Mafia,” quite literally, passes out mimeographed sets of instructions for its minions in the marijuana trade…. In doing so, the “Cornbread Mafia” has provided structure and stability in a highly volatile market. In return, for many years, prior to federal intervention, the “Cornbread Mafia” was left alone by local law enforcement. In those few instances when arrest did occur, usually because of serendipitous activity by the state police, the charges were dismissed in county courts.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, it raises the question of what “most corrupt” means. If it means how much money and people corrupt politicians can control through corruption, then yes, the Chicago area could easily be the most corrupt in the country. If it means the extent to which corrupt politicians can control a jurisdiction regardless of size, I’d assume that eastern Kentucky has us beat, at least since 2001, and beat pretty badly at that. $400,000 won’t get you very far in Chicago. In Kentucky, it can get you a whole county—price of living and all that.

I was also curious if there was something of a selection bias: whether a big city would draw more attention from the feds than a rural area, even if that rural area is quite large. And a 1998 paper, “Corruption and Government Size: A Disaggregated Analysis,” by Rajeev Goel and Michael Nelson, then of Illinois State, suggests some effect (PDF):

Finally, whereas police spending seems to mildly check corrupt practices, FBI and State’s Attorneys employment have no such effect. These latter federal enforcement activities appear to have less effect on the actual incidence of corruption and more effect on the level of detection.

It’s a chicken-and-egg question: is there more corruption, as measured by federal convictions, because there are more feds… or are there more feds because there’s more corruption?

Simpson et al. make a compelling case that Chicago has a worse problem with corruption than other major cities, and that Illinois has a worse problem with corruption than many or most states. But in terms of regional corruption, or political corruption in the context of other political entities, Chicagoland has competition, with the Davids of Kentucky making a substantial case as more corrupt than our world-famous Goliath of “Chicago-style” politics.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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2 years ago
Posted by KY_author

Hello, I'm the author of a book called THE CORNBREAD MAFIA, which is the nonfiction account of the biggest domestic marijuana syndicate in American history. It gets released into the wild on 4/20.

Therefore, I can attest to references to rural Kentucky corruption in Dr. Potter's paper cited above.

It seems silly to me to rank any one corrupt place as "most corrupt." The high number of conviction in the Chicago area is due to the fact that more are prosecuted there which is due in part to a richer media environment.

The press in Kentucky is not capable or willing to do this sort of work. Consequently it floats under the radar.

Yes, Chicago. Add Kentucky to the list of places that are equally corrupt as you, along with Louisiana; Providence, RI; Albany, NY; and Penn State.

And check out my book on Amazon, then tell your local bookshop to stock it, please.

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