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As one Illinois governor goes to federal prison, another faces similar misconduct allegations

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John O'Connor
November 8, 2007
— It might seem incredible that as a former Illinois governor reports to federal prison, the current chief faces similar misconduct allegations, from handing out state contracts as political rewards to accepting money under suspicious circumstances.

But this is Illinois.


Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who won the chief executive’s office five years ago on a promise to clean up former Gov. George Ryan’s mess, has wound up besieged by accusations.


Two people already have pleaded guilty to federal charges in a shakedown scheme that also ensnared one of the governor’s closest fundraisers.


And federal prosecutors have acknowledged they are also investigating "serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud“ under Blagojevich.


Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, blames an arrogant political culture in Illinois where the philosophy is "take what you can get.“


"It’s not about serving the people,“ Stewart said. "It’s not even about serving partisan interests. It’s about enriching yourself and your friends.“


A Blagojevich aide noted that prosecutors are examining all levels of government, not just the state Capitol. The governor has not been charged with any wrongdoing.


Ryan, a Republican, entered a federal prison in Oxford, Wis., on Wednesday after the U.S. Supreme Court denied him bail while he appeals his April 2006 conviction on racketeering and fraud charges. The decade-long investigation began with the sale of driver’s licenses for bribes and led to the conviction of dozens of people who worked for Ryan when he was secretary of state and governor.


Blagojevich said he was different, declaring upon taking office in 2003 that he would "shake up a system in Springfield that accepts corruption.“


But Antoin „Tony“ Rezko, a Blagojevich political confidant and friend, is under indictment, accused of seeking campaign contributions from investment companies in exchange for getting them business with a state pension fund.


In one case, the indictment claims Rezko demanded a company make a $1.5 million contribution to "a certain public official.“ That was Blagojevich, according to a person familiar with the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing.


The administration also has been accused of trading state jobs, appointments and contracts for political contributions. And a friend whose wife had just gotten a state job gave Blagojevich a check for $1,500. The governor said it was a gift for one of his daughters, but he wasn’t sure which one.


Also, federal prosecutors have subpoenaed records from Blagojevich’s political campaign fund, according to the Chicago Tribune.


Ryan’s campaign committee was convicted of racketeering in 2003.


Taxpayers just shake their heads.


"Setting the bar at a level of honest, competent government should not be an unattainable goal,“ said Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat and legislative leader on ethics issues.


Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said Blagojevich signed tough ethics legislation that created an independent inspector general, unlike what she called the "puppet“ who served Ryan as secretary of state and was convicted of obstructing inquiries.


Blagojevich also is not the only one under the gun. Ottenhoff pointed to recent convictions for improper political hiring at Chicago City Hall.


"In recent years, we’ve seen government at every level is under closer scrutiny and we think that’s good for the system,“ Ottenhoff said.


Former U.S. Attorney William Roberts, now in private practice, represented at least two dozen people questioned in the Ryan case.


He said he has never seen "a more intense investigation“ and doesn’t see the government easing up.


"One wonders why anyone who reads the papers would get within a mile of questionable conduct,“ Roberts said.



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