The Human Costs of Illinois’s Political Corruption

Two consecutive generations of corruption wracked Illinois politics, undermining the state and leading to an immense cost for the guilty and their loved ones. In the end, the ill-gotten gains seem incomprehensibly petty, but maybe it’s not about the money.

Rod Blagojevich Christopher Kelly funeral
Rod Blagojevich, with his wife and daughters, at Christopher Kelly’s September 2009 funeral

 

Chicago contributing editor Carol Felsenthal stopped by WBEZ’s 848 yesterday to talk about Lura Lynn Ryan and Patti Blagojevich, the wives of Illinois’s consecutively indicted ex-governors. To paraphrase Felsenthal put it, it’s almost too weird for fiction: one on her death bed as the other prepares for her husband to go away for years. Which reminded me of how depressing it is, when these things go down—and they go down a lot in these parts—and how trivial the fruits of corruption seem compared to the human cost for the guilty.

George Ryan

What he took:

Ryan also allegedly collected illegal cash payments, gifts and vacations, and channeled cash, loans and gifts to family members totaling about $167,000, according to the indictment. [A little more than a year of Ryan’s salary at the time.]

What he lost: Virtually all of his wife’s remaining years, and about a tenth of their marriage; hundreds of thousands of dollars in pension benefits.

Christopher Kelly

What he took (ok, he took a lot, actually):

In fact, Kelly later admitted in a 28-page plea agreement that between 1998 and 2006, he had worked with an insider to steer $8.5 million in O’Hare contracts to his company, BCI. Kelly used the proceeds for a variety of personal purposes, including paying more than $370,000 in gambling debts and repaying a $700,000 loan from Rezko to buy the Burr Ridge house. About $450,000 went to pay off the person—unnamed in the affidavit—who had helped him rig the bids.

What he lost: Everything. And killed himself in a trailer at 173rd and Cicero.

Scott Fawell

What he took, among other things:

According to prosecutors, Fawell accepted free marijuana from Roger Stanley, a direct mail and campaign brochure specialist, as well as vacations in Costa Rica, Door County, and Lake Ontario. The Costa Rican fishing trips were in return for state contracts awarded to Stanley. On two 1999 trips, a Costa Rican travel agent known as Penthouse Bill allegedly held welcoming parties at which Stanley and his guests would choose prostitutes to spend the trip with.

(Really, who wouldn’t put it all on the line to go to Door County?)

What he lost: Six and a half years as a free man, spent in Yankton, South Dakota.

Otto Kerner

What he took: Convicted of honest-services fraud over the acquisition of racing stock which earned him about $125,000, or around $750,000 today. (It’s a knotty case, which Michael Miner has covered in some depth after recent developments regarding that law; it’s possible that today Kerner wouldn’t have been convicted. The Supreme Court ruling has also led to an appeal by Ryan.)

That’s a lot of money, but consider: Kerner was a well-educated lawyer with degrees from Brown, Cambridge, and Northwestern. His ultimate successor, Richard Ogilvie, became a partner at Isham, Lincoln & Beale (which, in the ’60s at least, was paying about $180,000 a year), not to mention a railroad trustee, and served on the board of directors of Continental Illinois.

What he lost: A seat on the Seventh Circuit, the remainder of his life not spent with terminal cancer.

Rod Blagojevich:

What he tried to take: A job.

What he will probably lose: About ten years away from his family.

 

Kelly was clearly a high roller, though in the service of what seems like a serious addiction. But the rest of it just seems so… pedestrian. Particularly in comparison to the largesse generally and legally available to the politically well-connected in the private sector. Vacations? That’s it? Why bother, really?

In the end, I don’t think it’s really about the money, or the trips, or the marijuana. Steve Rhodes, in profiling Fawell for Chicago, captures an important truth:

From a distance, it appears that Fawell almost took glee in continuing to plot in the face of a federal investigation. “The game is what attracts some people, trying to be the smartest, cleverest person,” says [Kent] Redfield. “That’s the kind of hubris that gets you in trouble. You become so centered around feeding your ego in terms of your ability to manipulate and to orchestrate stuff that you lose sight.”

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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