Corruption down in Illinois, Chicago

But new study finds it remains a problem, with Chicago the most corrupt big city and Illinois ranking third in the U.S.

UIC Professor Dick Simpson has found Chicago to be the most corrupt U.S. city, with Illinois ranking third among states. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

UIC Professor Dick Simpson has found Chicago to be the most corrupt U.S. city, with Illinois ranking third among states. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Convictions on public corruption have dropped in recent years across Illinois and in Chicago, but it remains a problem on the national political stage, according to a new study released Monday.

Corruption in Chicago and Illinois” found corruption convictions down across the state in 2017, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Justice Department. But the study, led by author Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who is now a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, nonetheless proclaimed the city the nation’s most corrupt, with Illinois ranking third among states.

According to Justice Department figures, there were 25 public-corruption convictions in 2017 in the Northern District of Illinois, which has a central courthouse in Chicago and comprises the northern third of Illinois. “This is down from 30 in 2016, and down from an average of 33.6 per year over the last 10 years," Simpson wrote in the report, “but over the long haul, Chicago continues to be the most corrupt big city.”

There were nine other corruption convictions in the federal judicial districts for central and southern Illinois in 2017, but the 34 total statewide were well below the average of 45 a year sustained since 1976.

“The DOJ statistics from 1976 through 2017 show that a total of 1,731 individuals were convicted of public corruption in the Northern District of Illinois,” Simpson said, well above the totals for Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, and the District of Columbia, as well as the 88 other federal judicial districts nationwide.

Over that same time period, Illinois corruption convictions were outnumbered by those for California, Texas, Florida, and New York, but Simpson’s study weighed in population for a per capita figure that found Illinois placing third behind Washington, D.C., and Louisiana.

It’s worth noting, however, that since 2010 Chicago-area convictions rank third behind Los Angeles and Richmond, Va. Overall, since 1976, Chicago convictions have made up 82 percent of the Illinois total.

“While the decades-long declines in Chicago's public-corruption convictions may be encouraging, federal prosecutors recently jolted the electorate back to reality of Chicago’s ’chronic corruption problems,’” Simpson added, pointing to the recent federal charges filed against Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, accompanied by a recent finding that Alderman Danny Solis wore a wire in amassing evidence against Burke.

The study took pains to point out the 2017 cases included the conviction of former Chicago Public Schools head Barbara Byrd-Bennett on wire fraud in a bribery and kickback scandal, but not former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, who retired from Congress in 2015 in a probe over misuse of government funds, but whose trial is not scheduled to start until June in Chicago.

In addition to Burke and Solis, who may yet be implicated in wrongdoing, Chicago Alderman Willie Cochran is also facing corruption charges, and he too is set to go on trial in June after he rejected a plea deal late last year.

Simpson, a former “lakefront liberal” in the Chicago City Council, has made a career out of studying political corruption in the city since leaving office in 1979 after two terms. He co-wrote the study with Thomas Gradel and UIC doctoral student Marco Rosaire Rossi.