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Edwin Eisendrath Headshot

Next time, Say "No"

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Government corruption, particularly in a democracy, requires countless acts of moral failure. The inclination to deal rather than to clean house, to go along rather than to refuse, made the Blagojevich corruption possible in Illinois. As tempting as it will be to declare victory after getting rid of our crooked Governor, it will not be enough.

New laws are needed. But the growing list of convictions under current laws tells me that legislation, though necessary, will not be enough either.

Those who care about our government need to rediscover their moral compass and the courage to use it. I'm not talking about the I-knew-it-was-bad-but-I-never-thought-it-was-this-bad sort of outrage that's now on display. Anyone who read the Chicago Tribune during the last six years did know.

Way back in 2002, Rod Blagojevich became the first Democratic Governor of Illinois in decades. He promptly invited Tony Rezko, the now convicted influence peddler, to set up shop in his transition office in order to oversee the approval of applicants for key posts. Instead of raising cautionary flags, people raised cash for the Governor's coffers.

Within a year, the U.S. Attorney had launched Operation Board Games. Soon Joe Cari, the first of the Governor's fund raisers to fall, admitted to shaking down state pension fund managers for campaign contributions. Documents in that case identify the Governor as Public Official A in the scheme. The case broke when one person refused to play along and called the feds. Unfortunately that single person's courage was not contagious.

Mr. Blagojevich prepared for re-election by stepping up his fund raising and making it personal. John Wyma and Doug Scofield, both former chiefs of staff to Mr. Blagojevich became among the state's top lobbyists. Wyma, who is now reportedly cooperating with the US attorney, proves particularly good at getting the Governor to favor his clients and Wyma's clients prove to be generous contributors to the Governor's campaign. In one case a client of his made a single $100,000 donation, secretly bundled into five $20,000 checks, the day after a favorable ruling. The shakedowns were large and small. Instead of refusing to go along, the husband of a state worker makes news when it is discovered that he "gave" $1500 to one of the Governor's children.

In four quick years it had become clear that the Governor was at the heart of a statewide corruption investigation, that fundraising was at its core, and that persons involved were wearing wires. What happened? One union makes a more than a million dollars in donations to his campaign fund and Mike Madigan and Emil Jones, the state's legislative leaders, decide to chair his reelection campaign.

Back in January of 2006 I calculated the Ryan/Blagojevich corruption tax to be roughly $70 million and I asked people to refuse to play along. Here's what I said at a press conference:

I think of the two Governors' thirst for campaign money as the Golden Calf moment in Illinois. Remember that while Moses was on Mount Sinai getting the world's first set of ethical laws, the people were pushing their weaker leaders to create a false idol in gold. When Moses came down he didn't find a well ordered, well governed community. He found injustice, chaos, and at its core, the golden calf.

In our case the thirst for campaign cash has cost everyone millions of dollars. That's money that could have been spent on other things. It has cost us the very confidence we need to face our challenges. And it has led to a press-release government that substitutes the illusion of accomplishment for the real thing.

With all the focus on pay-to-play, our real challenges went unmet. We are all much worse off for it. Illinois is 49th in state support for public education. Its bond rating is dropping. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Businesses are locating in neighboring states, in part to avoid the corruption tax.

In the end enough people did say no to the Governor's shakedowns, and the whistle was blown. But most did not. As late as last week the Mr. Blagojevich raked in more campaign cash at a fund raiser hastily organized and coincident with his power to appoint a U.S. Senator. As politicians and citizens look for an end to the standoff with the disgraced Governor, let's hope we also find the courage to say no once in a while.