Local Government

Analysis: When it comes to corruption, Jackson Jr.’s path is well-worn

Former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell (clockwise from left), former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., former gorvernors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich are all part of the sordid history of Illinois corruption.
Former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell (clockwise from left), former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., former gorvernors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich are all part of the sordid history of Illinois corruption.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal corruption and tax evasion charges.

But in the storied and sordid history of Illinois political corruption, they’re also guilty of a lack of originality.

Jackson is not the state’s first congressman to face corruption charges. The Jacksons are not the first husband-and-wife political team to be indicted together. In fact, they were preceded in that honor by the ex-congressman and his ex-spouse who held the 2nd Congressional District seat before Jackson did.

As for the $750,000 in campaign money Jackson misspent on mink coats, a Rolex and Michael Jackson’s fedora? That’s pocket change to former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell, who was sentenced the day before Jackson’s indictment Feb. 15 to more than 19 years in prison for pilfering more than $53 million from city coffers to pay for a life of luxury that included, among many other things, a prized herd of 400 quarter horses.

A 2012 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that more than 1,800 public officials in Illinois have been convicted on federal corruption charges since 1976, or an average of 51 a year – or put another way, an average of about one a week. Jackson now joins a long list of Illinois politicians – federal, state and local – who have done for Illinois’ reputation what the Boston Massacre did for British-colonial relations.

While Jackson’s crimes are far from spectacular to a jaded state electorate, his office, family name and connections to others who preceded him to the courtroom give him a spot on the more distinguished part of Illinois government’s long list of ne’er-do-wells.

U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds

[Federal Inmate Number 07476-424]

Who was he? Reynolds, a Democrat, represented the 2nd Congressional District from 1993 until his 1995 resignation less than a year into his second term.

What did he do? Reynolds was convicted in Cook County Court on 12 counts of sexual misconduct and obstructing justice, including statutory rape of a 16-year-old campaign worker. While he was in state prison, he was convicted in federal court on 15 counts of financial and campaign fraud.

His former wife and campaign treasurer, Marisol, also faced federal fraud charges. She received three years’ probation after agreeing to help federal prosecutors, alleging that she participated in the crimes out of fear because Reynolds routinely abused her.

What happened to him? Outgoing President Bill Clinton commuted Reynolds’ sentence in early 2001 to time served.

Fun fact: Jackson won the seat in the 1995 special election called to replace Reynolds. Reynolds wants his old job back, and is running in the special election this Tuesday to replace Jackson.

U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski

[Federal Inmate Number 25338-016]

Who was he? Rostenkowski represented the Chicago area as a Democrat for 36 years, ending up representing the 5th Congressional District as the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

What did he do? A federal court in 1994 indicted Rostenkowski for his role in the congressional post office scandal. He faced 17 counts of fraud and obstructing justice, involving ghost pay rolling, misusing his office expense accounts, and trading stamp vouchers for at least $50,000 in cash.

What happened to him? Rostenkowski lost his re-election bid and pleaded guilty in 1996 to reduced charges of two counts of mail fraud. He served 15 months of his 17-month sentence. Clinton pardoned him in December 2000. Rostenkowski died of lung cancer in 2010.

Fun fact: Voters in the 5th District replaced the fallen Rostenkowski in 1994 with Michael Patrick Flanagan, who became the first Republican since 1967 to represent Chicago in Congress. He lasted one term until voters replaced him in 1996 with the up-and-coming son-in-law of alderman Dick Mell named Rod Blagojevich.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich

[Federal Inmate Number 40892-424]

Who was he? Blagojevich, a Democrat, was elected governor in 2002 on a pledge to clean up state government on the heels of scandal-plagued Republican Gov. George Ryan.

What did he do? Within a month of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008, Blagojevich was arrested on charges that he tried to sell his power to appoint Obama’s soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Although his arrest came halfway through his second term, investigators began examining goings-on in the Blagojevich administration within a year of him taking office.

What happened to him? Although Blagojevich was the seventh governor in state history to be indicted, his 2009 impeachment and removal from office was a first.

The jury in Blagojevich’s first trial in 2010 found him guilty of only one charge and was deadlocked on the remaining 23 – one holdout juror considered Blagojevich’s crimes no more than routine Illinois political business. Blagojevich in his 2011 trial was found guilty of 17 additional corruption counts.

Blagojevich began serving his 14-year sentence at a minimum-security prison in Littleton, Colo., in March 2012.

Fun fact: Jackson’s name came up during the Blagojevich investigation as one of the people interested in filling the vacant Senate seat.

Gov. George Ryan

[Federal Inmate Number 16627-424]

Who was he? Ryan, a Republican, served as governor for one term between 1999 and 2003. He worked his way up from the Kankakee County Board to the Illinois House to lieutenant governor to secretary of state before that.

What did he do? A horrific car accident that killed six children in 1994 revealed that the truck driver responsible may have paid a bribe to get his driver’s license. Investigation later found that bribes paid to get licenses while Ryan was secretary of state were being funneled into Ryan’s gubernatorial campaign. The investigation, Operation Safe Road, eventually led to more than 75 convictions, including Ryan’s.

What happened to him? Ryan was charged in December 2003 on a 22-count indictment including racketeering, mail fraud and tax fraud. A jury convicted him in April 2006 on 20 counts. Ryan started his 6 1/2-year prison sentence in 2007 at a minimum-security facility and was released earlier this month.

Fun fact: Weeks before his own arrest, Blagojevich was among several Illinois politicians who said that outgoing President George W. Bush should pardon Ryan.

Rita Crundwell

[Inmate number pending]

Who was she? Crundwell, a lifelong resident of Dixon, served for 29 years as the comptroller and treasurer of the town, population 15,733.

What did she do? Federal agents arrested Crundwell in April 2012, alleging that she embezzled at least $30 million from the city’s coffers. Further investigation found that she stole more than $53.7 million. Her life of luxury included a herd of 400 prized quarter horses, an 88-acre ranch, a Florida vacation home, and millions in expensive clothes, jewelry and other possessions, despite having a yearly salary of $80,000.

What happened to her? She pleaded guilty last November and a federal judge on Feb. 14 sentenced her to almost 19½ years in prison.

Fun fact: Dixon’s crime could be the largest municipal fraud case in U.S. history, according to federal prosecutors.

No list of corrupt Illinois politicians would be complete without one of the more bizarre cases in state history, even though he died before he was caught. Secretary of State Paul Powell didn’t collect horses like Crundwell or celebrity memorabilia and elk heads like Jackson, but his odd stash found after his death is one for the record books.

Paul Powell

Who was he? Powell served as Illinois secretary of state from 1965 until his death in 1970.

What did he do? During Powell’s tenure, his policy was that all payments made to the secretary of state’s office were made to Powell personally. He was investigated for corruption one year into his term, but exonerated.

Two days after he died, the executors of his will visited the Springfield hotel where he stayed, and found more than $800,000 in cash hidden in boxes in the closet. His annual salary as secretary of state was about $30,000.

Fun fact: Also included in Powell’s stash were 49 cases of whiskey, 14 transistor radios, and two cases of creamed corn.

And Powell, like Jackson, was guilty of a lack of originality when it came to taxpayer money in boxes.

Illinois’ first governor to be indicted was Democrat Joel Aldrich Matteson, who in 1859 was indicted for trying to cash more than $200,000 of stolen government scrip that he said he “found” in a shoebox.

Following Matteson in gubernatorial indictments were Republicans William Stratton, Lennington Small and George Ryan, and Democrats Otto Kerner, Dan Walker and Rod Blagojevich. Stratton and Small were acquitted – at least four of Small’s jurors ended up with state jobs – and Walker was convicted for crimes committed after he left office.

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