Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois has only a few weeks left in office after his defeat by Bruce Rauner. That left him enough time to get Lou Bertuca appointed as executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which was “created by the Illinois General Assembly in 1987 for the purpose of constructing and renovating sports stadiums for professional sports teams.” The ISFA owns US Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, and has a $40 million annual budget. The position pays $160,000 per year, not bad for a 30-year-old with no relevant experience, except that he was Quinn’s campaign manager.
That is corruption, the misuse of government for the benefit of private interests. Corruption exists at the nexus of money and power: money buys governmental power, and power enables people to make money. Quinn promoted himself as a crusader against corruption when he sought office, but he no longer has any reason, except perhaps conscience, to refrain from rewarding friends at the expense of the public good.
Quinn’s appointment of Bertuca is called patronage, the doling out of government jobs to friends and supporters rather than to qualified candidates. The Civil Service Commission was established in 1883 to end decades of patronage scandals. Applicants for federal jobs would have pass an examination to demonstrate their qualifications. Despite countless efforts to get rid of patronage in the US, the use of power to reward unqualified people continues, even at the highest levels.
Illinois has the reputation of having one of the most corrupt state governments in the country. Beyond the tendency of our governors to commit crimes and go to prison, it involves the systematic abuse of the public trust for personal enrichment. That reputation has been confirmed by some political scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They wrote that “the Chicago metropolitan region has been the most corrupt area in the country since 1976,” and that Illinois is the third most corrupt state. Besides the corrupt governors, 31 out of 100 of Chicago aldermen since 1973 have been convicted of corruption, an incredible continuity of criminality. Most of these convictions involved bribes to influence government decisions. When states are ranked by convictions of public officials per capita, we see that corruption is non-partisan: the highest rates over the past 40 years were reached by Democratic Illinois and Washington, DC, and Republican North and South Dakota and Mississippi. On this score, the least corrupt states are in the West: Oregon, Washington and Utah.
These incidents pale in comparison to the deep corruption which plagues other nations. Two weeks ago dozens of Italian mobsters were arrested for forcing their way into the city government of Rome. An investigation has revealed “widespread and unchecked corruption of public money” through nationwide crime syndicates infiltrating local governments, using them to siphon millions from public treasuries. While ordinary Italians suffer from inept or nonexistent public services, politicians and gangsters rake in illegal profits.
A new book describes Russia under Vladimir Putin as a “kleptocracy”, in which billions of rubles in public assets were seized by high-ranking Communist Party members, especially KGB operatives like Putin. He now rules an increasingly authoritarian state designed to preserve these corrupt gains by undermining internal democratic forces, weakening the independent media, and spreading disinformation in the West.
The organization Transparency International publishes a “Corruption Perceptions Index”, ranking nations “based on expert opinions of public sector corruption”, by which is meant “prevalent bribery, lack of punishment for corruption and public institutions that don’t respond to citizens’ needs.” The oldest democracies in Europe and North America are the least corrupt, while nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia rank highest. The United States does not come out very well, perceived as more corrupt than most western European countries, closer to Chile, Uruguay and Hong Kong than to England, Germany or Canada.
Corruption can be rooted out only by a combination of political and popular will. But while many politicians and citizens decry corruption, it is apparently all too easy to give that fight a low priority. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo set up a new “independent” ethics commission in 2013 to attack corruption. When the panel issued a subpoena to a firm that counted Cuomo as a client, his office demanded they withdraw it. This March, Cuomo disbanded the commission. New York voters displayed a similar apathy when they re-elected Republican Michael Grimm to Congress, despite his 20-count indictment for tax fraud. Three other New York state legislators who are under indictment also won, a Republican and two Democrats.
Transparency International cites “elections decided by money” as a sign of public corruption. The role of private money in public elections is much greater in the US than anywhere else. Giant campaign contributions allow the richest Americans and their corporations to write Congressional legislation. Because the ability of the wealthy to buy American elections through campaign contributions is legal, it does not count in international comparisons of corruption. But if we cannot reduce the influence of money in our political system, we may eventually lose our democracy to legalized corruption.
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