How Do You Solve the Bill Cellini Problem?

The quiet, unelected power broker has long presented a dilemma for journalists and voters alike. Reining them in requires a lot of unsexy concentration from writers, readers, and legislators.

Bill Cellini

 

Update: “Cellini business interests remain extensive, documents show.”

Steve Rhodes asks an interesting question today: “Did the media fail to properly scrutinize Cellini all these years?”

It’s prompted by John Kass, who writes that “Cellini never wanted publicity. Instead, he prided himself on ‘flying under the radar,’ and for decades, the news media in Illinois accommodated his desire to remain in the shadows.”

Rhodes concludes—and it’s worth following how he gets there, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the recently convicted state power broker—that the media didn’t exactly accomodate Cellini:

I think it reflects the nature of covering elusive people of power whose behind-the-scenes manuevers are sly, nuanced and, well, behind-the-scenes.

The complaint - which I share - that Cellini wasn’t properly covered is one that also often applies to pals of his like Michael Madigan and Ed Burke.

Now, if you look through the clips, you’ll see tons written about both Madigan and Burke. But a pesky feeling persists that they’ve escaped the full weight of the media spotlight relative to their power and influence. And rightly so.

The media tends to self-flagellate when longtime operators like Cellini fall at the hands of the law instead of the press, but it really does represent a difficult problem, or a combination of problems.

First, Cellini spent the majority of his years in politics first as an unelected official, then as a well-connected businessman. And while Cellini’s business tactics might have represented corruption, it didn’t necessarily make them illegal. As Rich Miller writes in a brief overview of how Cellini made his millions:

It’s impossible to run a government without making some people a bunch of cash. And while not condoning his behavior, there’s no doubt that Cellini was a genius. Wherever there was money to be made off the government, he was there, like an Illinois Zelig. Actually, he probably came up with most of those ideas, which is all the more amazing.

If he’s lucky, a person will have one good moneymaking idea in a lifetime. Cellini had too many to count. I just don’t think there will ever be another one like him. Not only is he a unique person, but laws and times have changed too much to do what he did now.

Even Cellini’s conviction was a very, very tough case:

“I was actually kind of surprised that he was convicted, because I didn’t think the case seemed that strong. But I wasn’t in the courtroom. But I do think that it also shows you that you don’t want the federal government knocking on your door, because, my God, if they can convict him on this, boy, they can get you.”

Kass suspects what did Cellini in was a laugh (emphasis mine):

How could they laugh?

Because they were the guys with the juice, they were the ones who allegedly controlled the government, and when you can use the government as your hammer, that’s better than a dozen tough guys because the government carries the force of law. So corruption is only a piece of it. That’s just money. But corrupting the government, which is supposed to be fair, and the effect that corruption has on the people, that is stealing something too. It steals the presumption of honest treatment.

But stealing the presumption of honest treatment isn’t necessarily illegal, or at least it’s less illegal than it used to be.

So if someone like Cellini can’t be un-elected and can’t be convicted unless he crosses a very gray line, what can you do? Well, you can un-elect the people who made Cellini so powerful. But that also happened, at very least through the passage of time, and Cellini always found new friends.

Rhodes writes that Cellini didn’t get the “full weight of the media spotlight.” And maybe that’s the trick, but determining the appropriate weight is very difficult. I’m reminded of Ben Joravsky’s work on tax-increment financing, a subject he’s been pounding year after year after year, to the point where Joravsky himself sounds weary when constantly having to re-explain how they work.

And on one hand, he’s had remarkable success—of all the journalists and politicians who have taken up the TIF flag, Joravsky likely deserves the most credit for the fact that some of the TIF surplus is being returned to the general coffers. On the other hand, the program still exists in its structurally inefficient form and there’s still a big surplus as property taxes continue to rise. Which is not to say Joravsky should give up; quite the opposite. It’s just to show how long it takes, and how determined journalists have to be, to make a case against something that’s both complex and not, at first glance, starkly wrong. And a lot of that isn’t finding one new outrage after another. Some of it’s just having the bullheadedness to keep repeating yourself until people get it.

I’m also reminded of Robert Moses—like Cellini, a road builder at heart—and Robert Caro’s biography of him. For decades Moses quietly reshaped New York from his little fiefdom, with the kind of power and patronage that, in his time, only Mayor Daley could compare to, only Moses operated almost completely under the radar. What caused his downfall? Well, a big part of it came when he picked a fight over a small park that was beloved by a number of wealthy, well-connected Manhattanites; another was his crusade against the beloved Shakespeare in the Park. Had Moses not entangled himself in two PR debacles, one among the smallest bits of urban planning of his long career, he might have still had the clout and momentum to drive an expressway through Greenwich Village and SoHo.

In other words, it wasn’t the big things Moses did that tripped him up; it was the little ones. To take Cellini’s example, he really cashed in on casinos, but got most of his negative press from the state bailout of three luxury hotels Cellini managed.

Power brokers like Cellini represent a real problem for the press, government, and voters, and have for years. In some ways we’re still figuring out how to write about them and how to legislate them out; Michael Tarm of the AP has a good piece about what the future represents for wannabe Bill Cellinis.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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