Corruption must be a top priority

Corruption must be a top priority

If official wrongdoing isn't punished, what's the disincentive for violating the law?

It is absolutely outrageous — but painfully consistent with how business is done in the state of Illinois — that a court-ordered investigation into an illegal hiring conspiracy revealed both massive wrongdoing and no real penalties imposed on those who did wrong.

That disturbing result was among the many findings included in a recent report on five years of illegal hiring (2009-14) that occurred at the Illinois Department of Transportation during the tenure of former Gov. Pat Quinn.

Court monitor Eileen Brennan's report to the federal judge who ordered her to conduct the probe revealed that many of the 154 individuals who were illegally hired remain on the payroll, while those who presided over the illegal hiring conspiracy were never sanctioned. She also identified top-ranking officials who, the evidence showed, testified falsely under oath.

This kind of misconduct demonstrates once again why Illinois needs aggressive corruption-busters appointed to head the three federal prosecutor offices in the Northern, Central and Southern Districts of Illinois.

Although there have been some corruption-related convictions over the past few years, it seems clear that no top federal prosecutor since Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed in 2001 had either the courage or the enthusiasm to go after wrongdoing at the state and local levels. (Fitzgerald, now a member of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, left office in 2012 to join a private law firm in Chicago.)

That's why it's imperative that influential members of Illinois' Republican congressional delegation, principally U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, and Gov. Bruce Rauner press U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the appointment of zealous prosecutors whose highest priorities include official corruption.

If that means going out of state to do so — and it probably does — then that's what needs to be done.

Illinois has benefited substantially in the past by bringing in federal prosecutors untainted by state and local political connections to take an arms-length look at this state's culture of corruption.

Influential Illinois citizens prevailed on President Herbert Hoover to appoint a federal prosecutor from outside Illinois to bring an end to the reign of mobster Al Capone. It was the Capone example that inspired former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, over the objections of both the Democratic and Republican political establishments, to select a federal prosecutor untainted by any ties to the political and legal establishments in Illinois.

Just as the feds sent Capone away on the income tax rap, prosecutor Fitzgerald declared war on corruption at all levels in the Northern District. He launched investigations that resulted in the multiple convictions of corrupt public officials, including two former governors, and their associates.

The problem, as always, is politics.

Being named U.S. attorney is highly prestigious, and many lawyers who've labored in political vineyards for years yearn to be rewarded with a high-profile post. But to be considered for such a position, one often must make the kinds of compromising connections that discourage taking a careful look at the more unsavory aspects of government in this state — pay-for-play deals and willful violations of law like those exposed in the IDOT probe.

Illinois is in deep trouble for many reasons, most obviously its irresponsible financial decisions over the past 20 years. But corruption also is a huge problem; its depth was revealed when U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald decided to turn over a few rocks and see what he could find.

It would be the height of folly to think what was going on then isn't still going on. The IDOT report revealed how rotten things were in just one state executive department involving a single issue — illegal patronage hiring.

State prosecutors have limited resources and even more limited enthusiasm for these kinds of probes. That's why Illinois' three federal prosecutor offices require strong, non-political leadership committed to serving the public interest.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion
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