Otto von Bismarck, the great 19th century German statesman and aristocrat, once remarked that laws are like sausages: it’s better not to see them being made.
In the case of disgraced ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, the sausage factory he was allegedly running out of the governor’s office included such a long laundry list of “pay-to-play” schemes, kickbacks, bid rigging, and laundered money, that cleaning up the state’s political reputation could take years.
Simply put, Governor Blagojevich became a golden goose of opportunity for well-connected businessmen in the state who were apparently willing to “buy” the governor’s unwavering personal attention for their pet legislative causes. And while Patrick Quinn, Illinois’ new governor, remarked last week that “everybody knows we’ve had a tough eight weeks, but it’s over,” it’s not. Springfield must now work overtime to unravel the mess the ex-governor and his well-connected business friends created, or Illinois will rightly deserve its reputation as the most corrupt state in the country.
Case in point: Legislation signed by Governor Blagojevich not once but twice, which required the state’s four top-earning casinos to give 3% of their gross adjusted annual revenues to Blagojevich’s horse racing cronies. Reasonable people can certainly disagree on the merits of gaming, but the governor’s personal crusade in 2006 and then again last year to tax one industry to prop up another was simply bizarre and left the citizens of Illinois scratching their collective noggins.
Now we may know why. As the federal complaint against Blagojevich alleges, in December 2008, the governor wanted a $100,000 campaign contribution from horse track owner John Johnston before he would sign the legislation into law. According to the complaint, the governor’s ex-fundraiser Alonzo Monk was apparently doing double duty at the time, lobbying for Johnston’s horse tracks in Springfield and playing the governor’s heavy to muscle Johnston to pay up. And apparently, this alleged “pay-to-play” scenario might not have been the first. When similar legislation was passed in 2006, Johnston and affiliated interests made more than $135,000 in contributions to Blagojevich on one day from several different accounts. The contributions were received almost exactly one month after the governor signed the bill into law.
Perhaps it was an additional symbolic debt of gratitude that caused Johnston to name one of his prime race horses (a two-year-old pacing colt) after the now disgraced governor. (A crowning touch of irony: the race horse was sired by Political Promise.) Indeed!
Illinois Representative William Black (R-Danville) may have been the first to smell something rotten in all of this. In an illuminating floor debate on the legislation in 2006, Black observed the governor and his staff putting the full court press on recalcitrant legislators to vote for the bill. “Why are some of you called down to the governor’s office, then you come back up and change your vote? … I like horses, but I don’t like what I smell here. I don’t like it all.” Remarkably, Black even predicted that this would all end up with the Feds on the governor’s doorstep. “Well Mr. U.S. Attorney in Chicago, get your subpoenas out, because I guess we’re never going to learn anything in the state of Illinois.”
Springfield does have an opportunity to learn from this and to set the whole tawdry episode right. Already the legislature is moving to repeal the 3% giveaway from casinos to Blagojevich’s horse racing cronies. That’s a good start. But horse racing interests and many other businesses Blagojevich “befriended” are still politically powerful and flush with campaign cash. It will take a strong will and a sincere desire by Illinois politicians to overcome the rotten legacy of the Blagojevich years. Here’s hoping Illinois has the backbone.