Blagojevich joins long line of troubled Illinois governors

2010-08-17T17:40:00Z 2010-08-18T17:48:38Z Blagojevich joins long line of troubled Illinois governorsBy Mike Riopell | mike.riopell@lee.net pantagraph.com

SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois voters are probably becoming accustomed to the idea that, every once in a while, an elected official is going to get in trouble with the law.

That's especially true at the top in Illinois. While governors across the country sometimes get into trouble, it seems to be a special problem for Illinois' chief executives.

So much so, that as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's federal jury began its deliberations, the state-funded Illinois Historic Preservation Agency sent a summary of past governors' troubles as a reminder.

"The agency interprets all of the state's history, both positive and negative," said spokesman David Blanchette.

On Tuesday, Blagojevich cemented his position in that history, being found guilty of lying to the FBI. In doing so, he becomes the second consecutive Illinois governor that has been convicted for crimes committed while holding public office.

Blagojevich, however, avoided convictions on any federal corruption charges because jurors couldn't make a unanimous decision. Federal prosecutors have vowed to hold another trial, ensuring Blagojevich's dramatic time in the limelight will continue indefinitely.

Illinois' reputation for ethics was stained far before Blagojevich came along. Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the state has seen more than 1,500 public corruption cases since the 1970s.

Still, some observers will look to Louisiana and New Jersey as more ethically challenged than Illinois. Simpson doesn't agree.

"We're the most corrupt state in the union," Simpson said.

Blagojevich's image hasn't helped, as far as comparisons to other states go. When U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced Blagojevich's arrest in 2008, he took time to mention the state's soiled reputation.

"I can tell you one thing: If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor," Fitzgerald said at the time.

Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, is serving a corruption sentence at the federal prison in Terre Haute. Dan Walker, governor in the mid-1970s, went to prison for a banking conviction unrelated to his time in office.

Otto Kerner, governor in the 1960s, was sentenced to three years in prison for bribery, conspiracy and perjury.

William Stratton and Len Small were both indicted, but later acquitted.

Illinois certainly isn't the only state with troubles at the top, even recently. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer left office after reports he often patronized a high-priced escort service.

And South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford had to deal with controversy after he went to South America to visit with a woman who wasn't his wife. He's still in office.

Neither of them, though, ever went to court over those matters.

Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman served time in prison this decade for a bribery and corruption conviction. Former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham was impeached from office in the late 1980s and was acquitted of felony charges.

But when it comes to governors going to prison recently, Illinois has been the standout.

For that reason, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican state Sen. Bill Brady are talking about ethics issues on the campaign trail.

Both hope to become the Illinois governor to break the state's prison streak.

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