Out of the shadows of corruption

By Kaley Fowler

With reputations for being corrupt, government officials in Chicago and Illinois are under scrutiny, especially in light of the recent Rod Blagojevich trial and prison sentence. In an effort to combat this image, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform is working to diminish the negative connotations surrounding governmental actions within the state.

During an April 18 panel discussion sponsored by the ICPR, a nonpartisan public interest group advocating public participation in government, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar and former U.S. Attorneys Joel Levin and Scott Lassar outlined ways to move past the state’s corrupt image and become a more

transparent entity.

“[The people of Illinois] deserve a government that is ethical, transparent and just,” said Gerardo Cardenas, an ICPR board member. “The harmful effects of corruption have left deep scars in all of us. We hope that through our work in Springfield and conversations like today’s, we can move out of the shadows of corruption and create political change for everyone living in our state.”

The discussion, titled “Out of the Shadows of Corruption,” offered a detailed look at how public misconduct is discovered, addressed and punished.

According to Lassar, instances of corruption within the state are “reactive” cases, meaning that the state does not discover them on its own, but rather a witness comes forth to expose the wrongdoing to prosecutors.

Receiving tips from insiders and whistle-blowers is the only “appropriate” way to discover corruption as “law enforcement should not be testing public officials,”

Lassar said.

Although he said reactive cases are the best way to convict crooked officials, he acknowledged to issues with the way such cases are ultimately handled.

“For better or worse, one thing we have proven conclusively is that prosecution by itself will not end all the corruption in Illinois,” he said.

Levin, who was prosecutor in the corruption trial against former Gov. George Ryan, agreed with Lassar’s sentiment, asserting that other methods, such as investigative journalism and research conducted by organizations like the ICPR, are better suited for exposing corruption.

“Locking people up and putting them in jail will not and does not solve the problem by itself,” Levin said.

After Lassar and Levin presented why they believe prosecution does not solve corruption, Schar, lead prosecutor in the second Blagojevich trial, explained that jailing unscrupulous officials makes the public feel more at ease and “lets the residents know that when their officials do things they shouldn’t, there are going to be consequences.”

However, he said there is a “growing apathy” among the public, which has grown accustomed to hearing about corrupt officials—a major problem, according to Madigan.

“To me, it is absolutely imperative that the public have trust in their government,” she said. “If the government doesn’t have legitimacy, our democracy simply doesn’t function.”

While her three fellow panelists addressed what they believe is wrong with the current system of identifying and punishing corrupt officials, Madigan offered her ideas on how to make the task easier.

“I don’t think there is an alternative [to prosecution],” she said. “But there are additional things that we obviously need to work on in the sense of putting in place an ethics structure.”

Madigan suggested implementing laws requiring officials to be recorded performing routine investigations and making the results of these investigations available to the public.

She also recommended improving “so-called sunshine laws” that make government actions available to the public.

“At every level, we have to ensure that there is transparency, integrity and accountability,” Madigan said. “We’re always going to be looking for good suggestions as to what we can be doing [to prevent corruption].”