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Chicago's Corruption Doesn't End at City Limits

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This column originally appeared in the "Chicago Journal."

Those of us who live in city neighborhoods know that Chicago is politically corrupt. There are figures in our neighborhood's history like former Ald. Fred Roti of the old 1st Ward who fixed a murder case and did the mob's bidding at city hall before going to prison. In Ravenswood on the North Side, there is the famous residence of former governor, now inmate, Rod Blagojevich whose spectacular court case has just concluded. Nearly every Chicago neighborhood has its famous rogues -- some with colorful nicknames like Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna.

The usual story has been that big bad Chicago is corrupt but the suburbs are examples of clean, honest, effective government whose citizens are not troubled with the graft and corruption that plague the evil city. This week, with University of Illinois at Chicago colleagues and students, I am releasing an anti-corruption report that proves that popular image false. In February, we released a report showing that Chicago is the most corrupt metropolitan area in the country and Illinois is one of the most corrupt states. This time we zero in on the suburban ring around the Chicago.

We found that since the 1970s there are more than 60 suburban villages, towns, and counties around the city with more than 100 convicted corruption felons in the last two decades alone.

Distinctive patterns of corruption in the suburbs include officials with ties to organized crime, nepotism and patronage; police officers aiding criminals; kickbacks and bribes to public officials; large economic developments profiting officials along with their families and friends; and outright theft of public funds. Corruption in all its various forms impacts many local governments throughout the metropolitan region.

For example, corruption in Cicero goes back to the days of Al Capone and famously includes Frank and Betty Loren-Maltese (Cicero's mayor just released from prison). In Rosemont the Stephens family seems to control nearly all government contracts and Rosemont was not allowed to have a casino because of mob ties.

Throughout the region there have been nearly two dozen mayors along with several dozen police chiefs and other policemen convicted of various corruption schemes. Racketeering, extortion, the sale of police badges, protection of drug dealers, and protection rackets are more common in the suburbs than most people realize.

Many contracts and businesses in the suburbs have bribery and corruption as part of business expense. And large economic development projects like Toyota Park, the home of the Chicago Fire soccer team in Bridgeview, have provided lucrative contracts to political family members and more than $170,000 in campaign contributions from vendors and contractors to Briegeview's Mayor and State Senator Stephen Landek's various campaign funds.

Altogether there are 1,200 separate taxing bodies in the Chicago Metropolitan Region with 540 in Cook County alone. And many of these smaller units of government have had large amounts of money stolen from them outright, including $500,000 from the Dixmoor Park District which oversees only one tot lot. The new champion of corruption from further downstate is the comptroller of Dixon, who is currently charged with stealing $53 million.

Ironically, Dixon is the home of the fiscally conservative President Ronald Reagan.

In our anti-corruption report, which will be available online after June 25, we detail the crimes in the more than 60 suburbs and recommend ways this public corruption can be cured. We also point out that corruption is costing us taxpayers in Illinois at least $500 million a year.

One starting point in fixing all this is to recognize that corruption is not just a Chicago problem. The culture of corruption is an Illinois problem. While some individual suburbs may be exempt from this epidemic, many suburbs are not. Those of us in the neighborhoods have to hold our aldermen, city government, and other local officials accountable and enact reforms like those proposed by Mayor Emanuel's Ethics Reform Task Force. But our friends in the suburbs need to recognize their problems and demand reforms by both local and state governments if corruption is to be cured.