Corruption convictions decline nationally but Chicago and Illinois remain at, near top

Significant political corruption cases dominated public attention in Chicago and Illinois in 2020 while corruption convictions throughout the nation declined, according to a new report co-authored by University of Illinois Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson.

Dick SImpson
Dick Simpson, UIC professor of political science. Photo: Kristina Sherk

“The sheer number and political stature of the Illinois elected officials and business leaders who were implicated, indicted or convicted in 2020 is staggering,” said Simpson, UIC professor of political science and the report’s lead author. “The fallout from these federal probes will continue to generate headlines and attract voters’ attention as we approach the mid-term congressional and state elections in November, and the elections next February and March for Chicago mayor and alderpersons.”

The report, “Corruption Continues Through the COVID-19 Pandemic,” shows that based on U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 1976 through 2020, the total number of federal criminal convictions for public corruption continued to decline from its peaks in the 1970s and 80s.

Despite the drop, the Northern District of Illinois, which contains Chicago and its suburbs, is still the most corrupt metropolitan area in the country, while Illinois, on a per capita basis, remains the third most corrupt state in the nation, according to the report.

Since 1976, Chicago had a total of 1,792 convictions and an average of 41 per year. Los Angeles had 1,661 and an annual average of 38, New York/Manhattan had 1,369 and an average of 31 per year, Miami had 1,234 and an annual average of 29, and Washington D.C. had 1,199 and an average of 28 per year.

Among some of the most significant political corruption episodes of 2020 outlined in the report are:          

  • Commonwealth Edison, Illinois’ largest electric utility, admitted that over nine years it bribed House Speaker Michael Madigan to help enact legislation beneficial to the company. Several of Madigan’s former staffers and political allies were named in search warrants, and some were indicted as the investigation continued throughout 2020.  Anne Pramaggiore, former ComEd CEO, and three ComEd lobbyists were indicted in 2020, and former ComEd executive Fidel Marquez pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy.
  • Illinois State Sen. Martin Sandoval, was investigated, resigned his position and pleaded guilty to accepting more than $250,000 in bribes. Another legislator, State Sen. Terrance Link, pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax fraud.
  • Jeff Tobolski, a former member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and former mayor of McCook, pleaded guilty to extortion conspiracy and failing to pay taxes in the wide-reaching SafeSpeed red-light camera scheme.
  • Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta was indicted for bribery and fraud in another red-light camera scandal.  Omar Maani, a SafeSpeed partner, was indicted for bribery and conspiracy.

“After scores of federal prosecutions in recent decades the general public is beginning to demand that their elected official pass effective reforms,” said Simpson, a former Chicago alderman. “Voters too are more willing to consider the impact and cost of corruption when they vote. And, it is likely that allegations of corruption and which candidates have the strongest and most credible anti-corruption campaign pledges will affect the upcoming elections.”

Report co-authors are Marco Rosaire Rossi, UIC doctoral student in political science, and Tom Gradel, a former political media consultant.

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