Chicago and its suburbs have averaged 51 public corruption convictions per year since 1976, a new study finds. Critics say Rahm Emanuel has not made City Hall sufficiently transparent.
By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer The Christian Science Monitor
posted February 15, 2012 at 4:35 pm EST
Chicago – The Chicago area is the most corrupt federal jurisdiction in the United States, having averaged 51 public corruption convictions each year since 1976, according to a new report.
Critics of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, say his refusal to release internal records related to controversial policy initiatives are working against the perception that things are improving.
According to the new report, released Wednesday by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago and the suburban area surrounding it, logged 1,531 public corruption convictions since 1976, or 84 percent of the state’s total for such convictions.
While California and New York totaled more public corruption convictions, Illinois outranks those states on a per capita basis.
The report arrives the same day Mayor Emanuel hosts the first meeting of an inaugural ethics task force. Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who co-authored the report, will be the first witness to testify. He says Emanuel is “doing much better in releasing more information” than his predecessor, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, but still has a way to go toward eliminating the city’s legendary patronage system and promoting full transparency at City Hall.
Emanuel has been under fire for appearing not to hold fully to campaign promises his administration would be more transparent than Daley’s, which was notorious for operating in secret. While the Emanuel administration has posted employee payrolls, databases, and other records on the city website, many of which had never seen the light of day until last year, critics say his staff have refused to make all documents involving policy decisions available and continue to react defensively to local media requests seeking complete administration records.
One recent example is an investigation launched by the Chicago Tribune that seeks to reveal the origins of a plan Emanuel successfully pushed through the City Council that will cover nearly half the city with traffic cameras designed to catch speeders, resulting in $100 tickets. While the mayor is selling the initiative as a way to increase child safety and reduce fatalities, critics say it is a shameless revenue generator that originated with an Emanuel insider.
According to the Tribune, the Emanuel administration only released 25 of the 165 internal communications requested through a Freedom of Information request, and the city is also stalling in subsequent requests to release comparable records for other stories involving water rate and vehicle fee hikes.
Emanuel attorney Steve Patton told the Tribune that the city does not need to reveal any more documents than it has to this point, insisting that Illinois’ open records laws allow municipalities to withhold documents relating to policy formation.
“If you’ve got a beef with that, then you need to take it up with the state legislature,” Mr. Patton told the newspaper.
The Tribune is pursuing the records related to the speed camera law because it says the lobbyist representing the city vendor that supplies the city’s red light equipment also worked on Emanuel’s legal team that defended challenges to his residency last year during his campaign for mayor.
Ending insider relationships are among the several recommendations Mr. Simpson planned to make Wednesday based on his report. He suggests that if Chicago is determined to reverse course on its corrupt past, it should bar all lobbying of city and state officials, provide all city documents upon request by the city’s inspector general’s office, and amend the city’s ethics ordinance so it covers all 50 aldermen and their staff.
Simpson also recommends providing ethics training and banning gifts to all city employees. He also advocates for re-introducing civic courses in public schools.
“We have a culture of corruption in Chicago and Illinois…. As we get public outrage, then we have an opportunity to change,” he says.
The message, he says, should be most relevant in a recession, when public bodies get aggressive in seeking cuts to shore up gaping budget holes. For example, the University of Illinois report estimates that corruption costs Illinois state taxpayers $500 million a year. Scheming by former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, found guilty of corruption last year, caused a downgrading of the state’s bond rating in 2009, costing the state an extra $20 million that year.