Chicago named nation’s most corrupt city

By Chris Loeber

While Chicago prides itself on being a world-class city, its newest distinction is hardly a claim to fame.

On Feb. 15, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Illinois’ Institute for Government and Public Affairs released “Chicago and Illinois: Leading the Pack in Corruption,” a report that shows the city and the state are among regions with the highest government corruption in the U.S.

According to James Nowlan, a co-author of the report and senior fellow at the University of Illinois IGPA, the research’s main purpose was reporting the number of public officials who have been convicted in order to call attention to the city’s 150-year long history of political corruption. The report also makes several recommendations, such as making all city documents available to the Inspector General so measures can be put in place to prevent corruption.

“Friends of mine wonder out loud if Illinois is the most corrupt state in the nation,” Nowlan said. “We thought that by looking at it systemically, we could try to answer that question.”

The study is the fifth and latest addition to a series of “anti-corruption reports” that focus on reporting research about corruption in northern Illinois. They are released once per year by UIC’s Department of Political Science.

According to the report, 1,531 public officials have been convicted by the federal judicial Illinois Northern District between 1976–2010 on charges of fraud, bribery, extortion and conspiracy, making it No. 1 in corruption convictions out of all districts in the country. The study also shows that Chicago accounts for approximately 84 percent of convicted officials in the state.

The California Central District comes in second with 1,275 convictions between 1976–2010, and the New York Southern District is third with 1,202 convictions.

“Many people go into state government and come to think that they might as well take advantage of situations that come to them where they could benefit personally at the public’s expense,” Nowlan said. “That is, that attitude of the ‘Illinois way’ or the ‘Chicago way,’ in which taking advantage of government is standard

operating practice.”

The City of Chicago has been home to a “culture of corruption” for approximately 150 years, said Dick Simpson, co-author of the report and former Chicago alderman. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that public officials in Chicago adopted that culture, when the city’s rapid growth provided plenty of opportunity for corruption, he said.

According to the report, Chicago aldermen and Cook County Commissioners accepted bribes for rigging a crooked contract in 1869, resulting in the first convictions of public officials in northern Illinois and Chicago.

It also stated 31 out of almost 100 Chicago aldermen have been found guilty on charges since 1973. Between 1980–1999, two FBI investigations led to the conviction of 10 aldermen for offenses.

“Particularly, this has been a political machine in both the city and other parts of the state that have done things like patronage, nepotism and corrupt contracts,” Simpson said. “It created an expectation of corruption both by the government and by the employees, [and] that’s what we are attempting to change.”

Brian Costin, director of Outreach at the Illinois Policy Institute, said he is concerned with the future of northern Illinois. While it is relevant to understand the extent of corruption in the state, finding solutions is the most important thing, he said.

The IPI’s Local Transparency Project, which grades local governments on how accessible they make information to the public, asks local governments to fill out a 10-question check list to determine the accessibility of information.

“What we’ve found is that local government agencies have been doing very poorly in providing basic information to their citizens,” Costin said. “If we want to turn our state around, we have to turn around our ethics, and transparency is a big part of that.”

According to him, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has put forth several measures to increase transparency and allow residents of Chicago access to city information.

Costin said new public data, such as the salaries of public employees and the city’s quarterly budget reports, have been made available through the city’s data portal. It can be found at

However, Costin and Nowlin said it is still too early to be certain if the mayor’s efforts at transparency will create widespread change in Chicago’s corrupt politics.

“I know he hasn’t had much time to completely change the culture, but there’s a lot of work left to be done,” Costin said. “I hope that he doesn’t rest on the few proposals that he has had success in implementing, and it goes much further because it’s not a small problem; it’s a big problem.”