Blago­je­vich, judges and the next cor­rupt Illi­nois pols

Chicago Tribune - - NATION & WORLD -

On Mon­day, jus­tices of the U.S. Supreme Court flicked off the lat­est ap­peal from Rod Blago­je­vich much as they flick lint from black robes. No need to ex­plain why the elab­o­rate ar­gu­ments from his lawyers went ker-flop. No cause to re­con­sider the litany of felony con­vic­tions, the 14-year sen­tence, noth­ing. Next case?

For judges back in Illi­nois, of course, the next case is never far away. Cor­rupt politi­cians have made sport of cheat­ing this state’s 12 mil­lion cit­i­zens, and the sea­son never ends.

Four of Illi­nois’ last 10 gover­nors have wound up in fed­eral pris­ons. With the Supreme Court se­ri­ally un­moved by Blago­je­vich’s ap­peals, the un­known now is whether judges here al­ways will re­mem­ber the ex­am­ple of U.S. District Judge James Zagel when they sen­tence the next crooked pols, and the next. There’s al­ways a co­hort of de­niers bet­ting that what hap­pened to Blago­je­vich won’t hap­pen to them.

This state’s politi­cians, and the judges who’ll likely see some of them in court, never should for­get the po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion tu­to­rial Zagel de­liv­ered in De­cem­ber 2011. He first spoke in gen­er­al­i­ties about the need for tougher penal­ties to dis­cour­age cor­rup­tion here. Then he handed 14 years to a man whose priv­i­leged life had taken him from North­west­ern Univer­sity to Pep­per­dine Law, to a job as a Cook County pros­e­cu­tor, to the Illi­nois Gen­eral Assem­bly, to the United States Congress, to the gov­er­nor­ship of Illi­nois. That man to­day is im­pris­oned in Colorado, sched­uled for re­lease in 2024.

Zagel ex­plained why Blago­je­vich’s crimes were so de­struc­tive, why cor­rup­tion is a more se­ri­ous crime than judges in Illi­nois had pre­vi­ously treated it. He essen­tially told other judges that pros­e­cu­tors and coura­geous jurors can do only so much, that courts must stiffen cor­rup­tion penal­ties. The harm in these cases, Zagel said, isn’t mea­sured in the value of money or prop­erty. “The harm is the ero­sion of pub­lic trust in gov­ern­ment.” When a gover­nor goes bad, he dam­ages a sys­tem that re­lies on the will­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion of its cit­i­zens. “You,” Zagel said, look­ing at Blago­je­vich, “did that dam­age.”

More than six years later, Zagel’s most im­por­tant les­son for the po­lit­i­cal class of Illi­nois stands un­re­futed: If cit­i­zens place their trust in you, then you can ruin your life and vic­tim­ize your loved ones just as this crim­i­nal freely chose to do to his. That warn­ing is our fo­cus to­day, as it was on the day of sen­tenc­ing: Cor­rup­tion doesn’t just hap­pen; peo­ple who may have fine at­tributes, im­pres­sive re­sumes and sub­stan­tial ac­com­plish­ments make it hap­pen. Ex­em­plary fa­thers and moth­ers, ca­reer pro­fes­sion­als, of­fi­cials who have done many good things for the peo­ple they serve — these oth­er­wise up­stand­ing folks, not just thiev­ing mopes, drive the Illi­nois cul­ture of po­lit­i­cal sleaze. Of­ten, Zagel said, these perps may think their many good deeds more than off­set their crimes. Not so. Zagel ac­knowl­edged that, yes, as gover­nor Blago­je­vich had acted for the good of oth­ers: “Ev­ery gover­nor, even our worst, helps some­one . ... Very few crim­i­nals are all bad. ... I am more con­cerned with the oc­ca­sions when you wanted to use your pow­ers to do things that were only good for your­self.”

None of us ever will know how many ex­em­plary peo­ple were cheated out of careers in gov­ern­ment, or how many em­ploy­ers lost chances at state con­tracts be­cause, dur­ing the Blago­je­vich years, the fix was in. His crown­ing be­trayal: He tried to sell a U.S. Sen­ate seat that be­longed to the peo­ple of Illi­nois.

In writ­ing about Blago­je­vich, we’ve ac­knowl­edged that we aren’t un­in­volved par­ties. U.S. At­tor­ney Patrick Fitzger­ald’s sen­tenc­ing mem­o­ran­dum to Judge Zagel noted that Blago­je­vich’s of­fenses in­cluded “de­mand­ing the fir­ing of the Chicago Tri­bune Edi­to­rial Board mem­bers in ex­change for as­sis­tance to the Tri­bune Com­pany for fi­nanc­ing in re­la­tion to the sale of Wrigley Field.”

Lawyers for Blago­je­vich and other de­fen­dants can ar­gue ad in­fini­tum about when po­lit­i­cal con­duct be­comes crim­i­nal con­duct. But on Mon­day, the U.S. Supreme Court again made clear that pub­lic ser­vice doesn’t mean self-ser­vice.

We hope all judges re­mem­ber this when they sen­tence cor­rupt pub­lic ser­vants. Just as we hope Illi­nois pols re­mem­ber the fate of a man much like them­selves. He used to be Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich.

TER­RENCE AN­TO­NIO JAMES/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE 2010

Then-Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich said the gov­ern­ment was crim­i­nal­iz­ing po­lit­i­cal horse-trad­ing.

E. JA­SON WAMBSGANS/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE 2012

U.S. District Judge James Zagel took a stand against “the ero­sion of pub­lic trust.”

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