When Illinois’ new General Assembly takes the oath of office Wednesday, the state that’s still struggling to rebuild its image after two consecutive governors went to prison will set yet another precedent of sorts: Three sitting lawmakers facing criminal charges.
Illinois is no stranger to dramatic headlines about the nexus of politics and crime in its highest offices — most recently former Gov. Rod Blagojevich‘s conviction for attempting to sell Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. But experts and capitol veterans can’t recall a comparable circumstance for state legislators since the early 1970s, when several were rounded up in a bribery trial involving cement trucks.
The allegations against the three officials vary widely: bribery, bank fraud and trying to bring a gun onto a plane. But experts say that while the charges differ, the accumulation and timing is damaging to Illinois as it struggles to address some of the most serious financial problems in its history.
“All this does is confirm those negative, cynical opinions that are out there,” said Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois at Springfield political scientist. “Part of that reputation is well deserved, … but if you’re trying to get citizens of Illinois to accept the legitimacy of the process you need as much credibility and trust as you can muster. That’s in pretty low supply in state government currently.”
Unlike Blagojevich and former Gov. George Ryan, who were accused of abusing their powers, only one of the cases involves political corruption.
Smith, who was appointed, was arrested on bribery charges and expelled from office in August, the first such expulsion in more than a century. In November voters put Smith back in office. He pleaded not guilty to allegations he accepted a bribe in exchange for supporting what he thought was a day care center’s grant application.
Smith hasn’t appeared publicly much since, though he’s expected in Springfield on Wednesday. His attorney didn’t return messages. By state law, Smith can’t be expelled again for the same charges.
“I am going to let bygones be bygones,” he said after the election, vowing to work for his district.
The other two cases don’t involve public office.
Ford, re-elected in November, faces bank fraud charges. He allegedly made false statements to a bank to get an increase on a line of credit, saying he’d use the money to fix investment properties but using the funds for expenses like car loans and his 2006 campaign. He pleaded not guilty last month. Ford says the incident was a mistake.
Trotter, a veteran lawmaker, was arrested when airport security workers found a gun in his bag. Trotter, who works in security, contends he simply forgot it was in his bag. He pleaded not guilty. His attorney didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Some of the increased legal action may stem from Illinois’ intensified focus against official wrongdoing.
When he took office a decade ago, former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s mission was to clean up the corruption-plagued Illinois. The investigations of Blagojevich, Ryan and Smith came under his watch. The state has also beefed up its ethics laws; last year officials abolished a program that allowed lawmakers to award college scholarships.
Authorities in Illinois’ largest county say they’ve also focused efforts on lower level public officials, now that the focus is off governors. Gov. Pat Quinn vowed to keep the office scandal free after Blagojevich, and so far appears to have succeeded.
In 2010, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez launched a program to fight corruption involving publicly elected officials and public employees. The first sting netted six arrests including school officials. It was dubbed Operation Cookie Jar.
The approach of the program, which now counts 35 arrests, has been to work with police departments and seek out corruption instead of reacting to tips.
“In the past we were more reactive. The cases came in and we were notified,” Alvarez said. “Our role is working from the bottom up.”
Resources poured into fighting corruption on a federal level are more difficult to gage. Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the Chicago U.S. attorney’s office, declined comment.
The Chicago area already has the most public corruption convictions of any federal jurisdiction nationwide, according to a 2012 University of Illinois at Chicago report. Since 1976, that’s meant more than 1,500 convictions in the Northern District of Illinois. That includes the 2011 conviction of Blagojevich, who’s serving a prison sentence and Ryan, who was convicted of corruption in 2006 and due to be released from prison this year.
Overall, during that time, Illinois has logged more than 1,800 corruption convictions, which is the third behind the more populous California and New York.
Even now, it’s far from the only state with current lawmakers in legal trouble.
There’s two in South Carolina. Democratic Rep. Harold Mitchell pleaded guilty in November to misdemeanor tax charges and will pay a fine to avoid jail. Also that month, a jury found Republican Rep. Kris Crawford guilty of failing to file past years’ tax returns on time and must pay a fine but doesn’t face jail time. California’s Democratic state Sen. Roderick Wright won re-election despite fighting felony counts of voter fraud and perjury.
Reformers say can’t jump to conclusions about the three in Illinois. The charges against Trotter could amount to him forgetting about the gun and those against Ford as an honest mistake, said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Smith’s trial is in October.
“We need to watch the process play out,” said Morrison.
Sophia Tareen can be reached at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press