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Chicago Still Most Corrupt U.S. City Even After Reforms

Former 45th Ward Alderman John Arena; Professor Dick Simpson of University of Illnois at Chicago

President Donald Trump’s commutation of disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s prison sentence brought back memories of corruption at the highest levels of Illinois government. But such corruption is hardly a thing of the past, and the commercial real estate industry frequently gets caught up in the scandals.

After all, the most prominent recent corruption scandal in Chicago was 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke’s 2019 indictment for pressuring local businesses to make campaign contributions in exchange for favorable treatment on securing needed permits, an experience many in real estate have gone through with demanding City Council members.

And a former Chicago alderman and longtime political observer now says that although Mayor Lori Lightfoot has made progress combating this kind of corruption, the city and state will continue to have bad reputations.

“We’re going to have a bonanza of convictions in 2020 and 2021,” said former 44th Ward Alderman Dick Simpson, now a professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago.

He just issued a report on the local and state governments’ corruption record, and said between 1976 and 2018, Illinois had more corruption convictions than any other state except Louisiana, and Chicago’s 1,750 convictions was 200 more than second-place finisher Los Angeles.

Convictions for corruption have declined recently, but Simpson said this was because federal agents were so focused in 2018 on a few high-profile cases like Burke’s, but other investigations later ramped up.

More convictions would continue a sorry history. When Blagojevich left the federal penitentiary in Englewood, Colorado, on Tuesday, it was the first time Illinois did not have a former governor in prison since 2007. 

Corruption is not nearly as bad today as it was in the 1970s, when Simpson joined City Council, he added. Since then, a series of federal court orders known as the Shakman Decrees banned political hiring. 

And Lightfoot took action against corruption on her first day in office, curtailing the power of city council members like Burke to approve building permits and licenses.

“That change has made a major difference, and will have a real long-term effect,” Simpson said. “What Burke did no longer can be done.”   

Other Lightfoot reforms implemented last summer include giving the city’s inspector general more power to investigate the city council. But the state’s General Assembly still uses its own legislative inspector general to root out malfeasance, rather than someone with more independence.

“It’s a terrible system, and it’s absolutely necessary for legislators to bring about reform as we’ve done in Chicago,” Simpson said. 

The core powers that aldermen can use to control development in their wards also remain. Commonly known as aldermanic prerogative, the tradition means each city council member can greenlight or block new projects in their ward through zoning decisions. That can lead to corruption if developers seek to influence members through campaign contributions or other favors, Simpson said.

The Lightfoot administration has said it wants to reform that practice, but has not brought forward any proposals. City Hall may encounter resistance from aldermen, including progressive mayoral allies, who say this power helps ensure local control over development, and helps boost their efforts to create more affordable housing.  

Simpson said commercial real estate and other business groups have sometimes backed reform efforts aimed at corruption, but other times turned a blind eye. 

“It's time for them to join with other civic groups and help end machine politics and corruption in the state.”

He puts out these corruption reports on a nearly annual basis, and would like to see a day when it's no longer necessary.

“I'd be very happy to get out of this business.”