“I am like any other man,” remarked Al Capone infamously. “All I do is supply a demand.” America’s most notorious gangster lent Chicago its grim reputation in the Roaring Twenties as a centre for the mafia, violence, corruption, and crime. Much has changed for the better in this city, the largest in Illinois, the populous mid-western state with a long and unenviable legacy of lawlessness. But as the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich suggests, some things — that cosy mix of crony capitalism, crime syndicates, influence peddling and political corruption — have remained more or less the same. Mr. Blagojevich, who was handcuffed and hauled before a magistrate, has been charged with conspiracy and bribery for attempting to sell a U.S. Senate seat vacated by no less than President-elect Barack Obama. He may, in Capone’s scheme of things, have only been trying to supply a demand. Of course, he was also not opposed to demanding some supplies. FBI wiretaps of his phone conversations recorded him seeking campaign contributions in exchange for sanctioning money and approving projects, exploring ways of getting a lucrative corporate sinecure for his wife, and persuading a newspaper’s owner to fire editorial writers critical of him.
Mr. Blagojevich’s indiscretions have been described as “shocking” and a “corruption spree.” He has been accused of taking public service to a “new low,” but this should be seen in the context of a political milieu in Illinois that is plagued by a giddy succession of scandals. The man he succeeded as Governor, George Ryan, was convicted of corruption for routing state contracts to political insiders when he was Illinois Secretary of State. Two other Governors, Dan Walker and Otto Kerner, have served prison terms in the last four decades for such things as bribery and fraud. In 2006, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that at least 79 Illinois public officials have been found guilty of a crime since 1972 — a list of worthies that included 15 state legislators, 27 aldermen, and 19 judges. At one level, it is a record of a state that is a hotbed of cronyism and corruption. At another, it is a record of a criminal justice system that has succeeded in bringing a string of corrupt public officials to book. Consider the situation in India, where selling seats in legislatures, securing sinecures for relatives, arm-twisting the press, and doing sweetheart deals with businessmen are routine occurrences. In fact, the likes of Mr. Blagojevich may well be able to learn a thing or two from some of our political leaders. What we need to learn from Illinois is a way of holding public officials, high and low, accountable to the law.