| by Nathaniel Hamilton

This originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business on December 11, 2017


Fighting to reform corrupt government is always an uphill slog. In the case of Illinois, however, it’s practically a trek up Everest.

Two revelations of government corruption over the past month show the steepness of that slope.

Take the most recent scandal surrounding now former Chicago Public Schools’ CEO Forrest Claypool.

An ethics investigation showed how Claypool hired a lead attorney for CPS, Ronald Marmer, and tasked him with managing an outside contracting law firm. But Marmer had a conflict of interest because the firm was paying Marmer $200,000 a year from a severance package. Claypool then tried to cover up the problem and lied to investigators during an official investigation.

Claypool resigned his post on Friday after public pressure became strong enough. But true to Chicago’s form, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried defending Claypool and pitching his “character” for admitting to his mistake. Claypool himself said that he was simply overzealous in his fight for Chicago students.

But none of those justifications changes the fact that Claypool lied to law enforcement and actively tried to go around the ethics laws of the city.

The second example is from an investigation Project Six recently released detailing how Emanuel allowed Ald. Marty Quinn to illegally spend $75,000 in tax dollars on industrial equipment. The investigation also shows how Quinn and Speaker Michael Madigan broke electioneering laws by placing political ads on city property.

Reactions varied from people being offended at Quinn’s actions and the mayor’s tacit approval to responding with an apathetic shrug. Quinn himself, and some others, attempted to invalidate an investigation exposing his illegal spending as a political hit job, a shrugging “no big deal.”

Quinn defended breaking city spending laws by proclaiming the money was for “constituent services.” In a city government fraught with waste, why worry about waste that provided a service to citizens?

But it is justifications like all of these that are emblematic of how corruption has become acceptable, even commonplace, here. Until relatively recently, Chicago’s rampant use of patronage jobs could have been considered a “constituent service.” Simply admitting a mistake in judgment when illegally demolishing an airstrip, or pushing through a risky parking meter deal, could be considered having “character.”

Illinois’ history of political corruption did not arise out of a vacuum. It has been the result of choices—choices about who has power, and how that power is used.

But there are other choices, subtler ones that are much harder to tackle. These are cultural choices, choices about acceptability and expectations of behavior. Years of complying with corrupt and improper behavior by elected officials has allowed that corrupt behavior to become acceptable here.

It is Chicago’s permissive political culture that supports giving aldermen nearly absolute authority over almost every aspect of their ward. It’s that permissive culture that allowed Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios to use tax dollars to fight oversight for his office in court for four years. And it’s that permissive culture that allowed Claypool to lie and Alderman Quinn to illegally spend tax dollars, as long as it was “serving constituents.”

This political culture allows government officials to rationalize their actions, whether proper, legal or ethical, as the ends justifying the means. It also shields elected officials from having to pass judgments on the actions of their peers.

This political culture is toxic. It perpetuates bad outcomes and incentivizes ignoring inconvenient rules, laws and ethical principles. But as a choice, it can be changed.

Voters must choose to give their vote only to elected officials who fight for stronger ethics rules and oversight—not jobs or perks for their chosen insiders. Elected officials must choose to appoint public servants who fight for honest and transparent government above all else, no matter the post. And if any public official fails to live up to those standards, we all must choose to demand someone else who will.

Only when Illinoisans refuse to comply with public officials breaking rules and laws—regardless of the justification—will such behavior no longer be acceptable.