Today came word that John Harris, the chief of staff to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich who was arrested on Tuesday with his boss, has resigned his position. His attorney, Jim Sotos, stated that his client was taking this action “because it was the right thing to do and that’s all I’m going to say.”
This can hardly be good news for the Beatle-coiffed Blagojevich, since it strongly suggests that Harris may be ready to cut a deal with U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, much in the way that the chief of staff to “Blago’s” predecessor George Ryan, several years ago, provided the testimony that helped Ryan and several others to jail.
At this point, the Blagojevich affair is still unfolding, with more and more questions being raised about the relationship of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s sons to the embattled governor. There’s also the matter of the officeholder’s ill-defined (at this point) contacts with some of President-elect Obama’s associates, though America has been repeatedly assured that the President-elect himself has not been tied to any wrongdoing….but let’s save that for my post next week, “Is Obama The New Truman?”
Here I’ll take a look at the highlights of Illinois gubernational wrongdoing in the last 40 or so years
Although William G. Stratton (who succeeded Adlai Stevenson in the governor’s mansion at Springfield) was tried for income-tax evasion several years after leaving office in 1961, he was acquitted. Therefore, this story begins with Otto Kerner Jr. Kerner, the son of Illinois’s attorney general of the 1930s (and also the son-in-law of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was slain in 1933 by a bullet intended for President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt), took office in 1961, and, during his term, was one of the more highly-regarded Democratic officeholders in the country – so much so that President Johnson hand-picked him to head a commission to determine the causes of violence in America. (The report produced by the Kerner Commission figures prominently in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland.)
In 1968, Kerner left the governorship after Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Not long after that, a Federal income-tax return filed by the owner of the Washington Park and Arlington Park racetracks outside Chicago surfaced, which, remarkably, listed payments made to the then-governor as regular business expenses. In exchange for these payments, Kerner had arranged for two expressway exits to be constructed which facilitated traffic to and from the tracks. Kerner was charged with bribery and, after a lengthy court battle, was convicted and resigned his judgeship before he could be impeached. He went to jail but served only a brief term before being diagnosed with terminal cancer; he died in 1976.
In 1972, Democrat Dan Walker won the Illinois governor’s race after pledging, like many candidates before him, to clean up the statehouse. His four years were distinguished by constant battles with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and the latter’s acolytes that accomplished little in the way of a real cleanup of the Windy City’s politics. After leaving office, Walker, who left office with little money but with some measure of prestige, entered into a series of ill-starred business ventures trading on his name, culminating in the First American Savings & Loan of Oak Brook, which Walker used to arrange fraudulent loans to himself. When this was discovered he was prosecuted and served a sentence in Federal prison. In Jan. 2001 he sought a pardon from President Clinton, but was unsuccessful.
In 1998, after Republicans James R. Thompson and Jim Edgar had governed the state for two decades, Republican George Ryan was elected. Two years later he gained national attention for declaring a moratorium on executions in Illinois and, just before leaving office in Jan. 2003, commuted all death sentences in the state to life imprisonment.
This achievement earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize for Peace after he departed office, but it did not spare him the attention of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who had arrived in Chicago in 2001 at the behest of then-Senator Peter Fitzgerald, no relation. (Tonight on the Jim Lehrer News Hour, Mark Shields remarked that if anyone deserves credit for getting the process underway that led to Blagojevich’s arrest it is Peter Fitzgerald, who was inspired to lobby the Bush White House to have Patrick Fitzgerald sent to Chicago after reading Richard Norton Smith’s account of Col. Robert McCormick’s role in Elliot Ness’s fight against Al Capone in the book The Colonel.) An investigation which started with the revelation that Ryan’s office had issued truck-driver’s licenses to unqualified individuals for bribes soon expanded into a comprehensive unveiling of systematic corruption in campaign contributions. This led to Ryan’s being sent to Federal prison where he remains today.
With all that history, and all the pressure being exerted on him by Democrats both in Springfield and Washington, it’s remarkable that Rod Blagojevich is still at his office pretending that he can weather the storm. One has to wonder what kind of deal he might cut with the U.S. Attorney’s office in exchange for an early departure and an easier sentence.