Jim Dey: Illinois corruption now up in lights

Jim Dey: Illinois corruption now up in lights

Most people who pay attention know that government in this state is relentlessly corrupt, to the point that Illinoisans laugh at the extent of the venality and residents of other states laugh at Illinoisans for putting up with it.

But is there a limit beyond which the oh-so-tolerant people of Illinois won't go in living with the state's culture of corruption?

Tim Touhy, a public relations consultant, is about to find out. He's co-written a play about one of the most sordid chapters in Illinois' long history of political scandal, debuting Nov. 7 in Chicago.

"I Wish to Apologize to the People of Illinois" focuses on Stuart Levine, a plugged-in political player who was steeped in corruption before turning into a government stool pigeon to save himself. Once a multimillionaire highflier, Levine is now federal prison inmate 18752-424 serving a 5-1/2-year sentence at a minimum-security prison in Duluth, Minn.

Levine won't be able to attend the premiere, but his words and deeds, taken from courtroom transcripts and news accounts of the federal probe into Gov. Rod Blagojevich-era corruption, will be front and center.

"I think there are elements in it people will find funny, and I think there are elements in it people will find disgusting," said Touhy, a self-described political junkie.

Most important, he said, "Levine and his dealings are a great story, and people want to see a great story."

Who is Levine? Before falling on legal hard times that resulted in professional and financial ruin, he was a Highland Park millionaire who was tied in to the Democratic and Republican Party establishments in Illinois.

He also was a man who, in his own words, "in no part of my adult life was I not involved in criminal activity." Levine stole millions, and his victims include a charity and the children of a close friend whose estate he managed. He paid bribes. He consumed illegal drugs and participated in orgies with male prostitutes. He lied; he cheated — for decades.

In the process, he became known as a pillar of the community, a philanthropist, a family man and the quintessential political insider.

U.S. Judge Amy St. Eve, who sentenced Levine, was quite impressed by his resume.

"You are certainly one of the most corrupt individuals (I) have ever seen," she said.

Ironically, the people of Illinois owe Levine a debt of gratitude. Ever the sleaze, Levine decided to cooperate after FBI agents came knocking on his door with evidence of his corrupt activities involving state contracts, recording incriminating conversations with his co-conspirators who included a who's who of Illinois big shots.

Appointed by Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, Levine served on the boards of the state's Teachers' Retirement System and the Health Facilities Planning Board. Teaming up with others, including Springfield businessman William Cellini, Chicago political insider Tony Rezko and Blagojevich, Levine used his positions to extort payoffs and campaign contributions from people doing business before those bodies.

It was an extortion scheme breathtaking in its scope, and just as breathtaking when all the players went down. Rezko and Blagojevich are serving lengthy prison terms. Cellini escaped with a slap on the wrist, and he's expected to be out of prison by the end of the year.

Levine isn't scheduled to be released until August 2017.

The play features the characters and the words picked up on FBI listening devices of Levine, Cellini and big shot Chicago pol "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak as they described their exploits in tawdry detail.

"You can't write better dialogue than a person's own words," said Touhy, who is an assistant director of the production.

Touhy describes the production as a "behind-the-scenes glimpse" at politics as it's really played in Chicago and Illinois. But he said "we've been careful not to be preachy."

Because of Chicago's passion for politics and its history of corruption, Touhy's play already has received a healthy dose of news coverage. He's hoping that will "entice people to see this play" and give it a longer life than the currently scheduled Nov. 7 to Dec. 8 run.

If it does, chalk the interest up to Levine, whose multiple levels of personal and political corruption stagger the mind. The book "Golden," an examination of the corrupt tenure of Blagojevich, describes him as "underrated on the long list of shady characters in Chicago history."

Like all venal characters, Levine was tearful when he pleaded for mercy in court. He apologized to his family and expressed regret over his conduct. Given the length and breadth of his misconduct and the sociopathic character that drove it, Levine was really only sorry that he was caught. Until the feds showed up, Levine was having the time of his life.

Jim's Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club — Volume LIX

Strap on your seat belt. You'll need it because the latest recommendation from this pseudo-intellectual will take readers to the flak-filled skies above Nazi Germany, where survival is such a long shot that it can depend on a little professional courtesy from a German fighter pilot.

That sounds peculiar because it is. The story told in Adam Makos' "A Higher Call: An Incredible Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II" borders on the unbelievable.

"A Higher Call" is story of a chance encounter between two pilots — American and German — that forged a lifelong link between them.

Bomber pilot Charlie Brown and members of his crew flew on a B-17 called Ye Old Pub. German fighter pilot Franz Stigler's job was to shoot down pilots like Brown.

Their paths crossed in December 1943 on the day of Brown's maiden bombing run to Bremen, Germany, a day when he and everyone aboard should have died, finished off by Stigler.

Without giving away too much of the story, Brown's wounded plane, which was shot to pieces and barely able to stay aloft, was flying on a wing and a boatload of prayers. Stigler, a widely respected German pilot with a long list of kills to his credit, had the opportunity to finish off Brown's plane but opted not to do so. Not only that, but Stigler helped escort Brown's plane safely back to England.

What's up with that? Readers will have to find that out for themselves. But it's a darned interesting story of decent people caught in an indecent situation and the choices they made.

The book comes alive in its step-by-step description of the missions required of World War II bomber crews.

Crew members' courage in the face of long odds is striking; even more stunning is the way they steeled themselves to do the dirty job their country required of them.

Told from both the German and American viewpoints, "A Higher Call" provides a full account of the relationship between hunter and the hunted, roles that shifted minute by minute as skilled pilots maneuvered for advantage. Not just for World War II buffs or pseudo-intellectuals, "Higher Call" tells an amazing story anyone can appreciate.

Previous recommendations from Jim's Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club can be found on my blog at news-gazette.com.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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