CHICAGO — More than 25 years ago, a visiting small-town judge stashed a tape recorder in his cowboy boot and came away with shocking evidence of bribe-taking and bagmen in Chicago's courts.
Former Judge Brocton Lockwood was part of an unprecedented FBI sting operation in the Cook County courts called "Operation Greylord" that uncovered judges, lawyers and clerks taking cash, fixing cases and engaging in other brazen judicial corruption.
The case was a stark example of the cottage industry of corruption prevalent in Illinois and contributed to its long history of scoundrels and scandals, punctuated by Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest last week on charges that he schemed to auction off President-elect Barack Obama's open Senate seat.
So when the governor was escorted by federal agents from his home in handcuffs, it seemed painfully familiar to Lockwood.
"I thought nothing has changed," the retired judge said. "I'm embarrassed for the state. I'm disappointed for the nation because this is going to divert attention from Obama's efforts to deal with bigger issues than Blagojevich. ... It just makes politics a sleazy business."
Lockwood's puzzlement was echoed by people around the nation as the Blagojevich scandal unfolded: What is it about Illinois that seems to breed political corruption, and why hasn't anyone been able to do anything about it?
Corruption and graft have become so entrenched over the decades that they've become part of the political culture, and experts cite a list of reasons why: Weak state campaign finance laws that have allowed influence peddlers to make big contributions. Lawmakers who don't always get close scrutiny. A patronage system that makes employees beholden to political bosses. And a jaded public that seems to accept chicanery as the cost of doing business.
"The rest of the country kind of grew up and got past the corrupt legislators and urban machines," said Kent Redfield, a University of Illinois-Springfield political science professor. "The reform/good government movement never got traction in Illinois."
"In some ways, Illinois kind of reminds you of Third World countries where everyone knows to get things done you have to bribe someone every step of the way," he added.
The state's history of rogues and crooks includes a long-ago secretary of state who died leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars mysteriously stashed in shoeboxes in his hotel closet and a judge who took money to fix murder cases. Former governors, congressmen, aldermen, and state and city workers have all gone to prison.
"If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor," Chicago FBI chief Robert D. Grant said when the charges were announced against Blagojevich.
The top competitors seem to be New Jersey and Louisiana. More than 130 public officials in New Jersey have been found guilty of federal corruption in the past seven years. And Louisiana more than holds its own. A congressman once described the state this way: "Half of Louisiana is under water, and the other half is under indictment."
Louisiana also is known for its flamboyant governors, from Huey Long to Edwin Edwards, who is in prison for his involvement in a scheme to rig riverboat casino licensing.
But no state is immune.
Nationwide, more than 1,800 federal, state and local officials have been convicted of public corruption in the past two years, according to FBI statistics released this spring. The number of pending cases has jumped by 51 percent since 2003, the agency said. In the past decade or so, the governors of Louisiana, Connecticut and Rhode Island have pleaded guilty or been convicted of wrongdoing.
A culture of corruption
But in Illinois, especially in Chicago, graft has been so rampant it's become part of the folklore.
In "Boss," the unauthorized biography of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Mike Royko suggested the city change its official motto, "Urbs in Horto" or "City in a Garden" to "Ubi Est Mea?" or "Where's Mine?"
That was more than 35 years ago, but the problem still persists.
"It seems to me that corruption in Illinois is incorrigible," said Ron Safer, former head of the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office and now in private practice. "Why does someone who has achieved the public acclaim and success that results in them attaining public office risk losing everything for money? It is impossible for me to understand."
Jay Stewart, head of the Better Government Association, believes efforts to downplay corruption are wrongheaded.
"I don't look at convictions in our state and argue there are just a few bad apples," he said. "The public believes there's a problem, and it's a systemic problem. But they feel powerless and unable to change it. ... I think people view it as blood sport ... and they throw up their hands and say it's just entertainment."
Attempts at reform
There have been reforms in the state, most notably a new ethics law designed to limit the impact of money in politics. It was approved only after Obama, a former state senator, called his one-time mentor, Senate President Emil Jones, and urged its passage.
Blagojevich vetoed it, and the Senate overrode him. But in a strange twist, prosecutors say the law may have been Blagojevich's undoing, alleging he carried out many of his misdeeds to beat its Jan. 1, 2009, implementation.
Illinois has long been known as the "Wild West" of campaign finance, with virtually no limits on who can contribute and how much. The new law prohibits people with state contracts of $50,000 or more from contributing to the politicians who administer them, or to their opponents in an election year.
But Redfield, the political science professor, acknowledges the measure is a narrow prohibition and reflects how hard it is to make sweeping reforms.
"Instead of comprehensive changes that really change the system, the prevailing attitude in the legislature often is 'What's the minimum we can do to fix it?'" he said.
The power to make unlimited donations can be corrosive, said Scott Turow, a novelist and member of a state's ethics commission. "Even if you're a moderately, well-intended human being who doesn't have the scruples of a priest, if someone starts handing you $50,000 (to) $100,000 contributions, you can't say it's not going to have an effect," he said.
Turow also points to another possible reason corruption has flourished. With the state capital in Springfield, he said, there isn't much scrutiny by the media. "The state legislature is really allowed to operate in a state of mild secrecy," he added.
Michael Shakman, the attorney whose challenge of Chicago's patronage system nearly 40 years ago led to a decree that bans most political hiring, also said the practice of reserving city payroll jobs for political appointees has contributed to corruption.
"Jobs are plunder," he said. "It makes it easy for villains to get elected and hard for the reformers to do anything about them."
Shakman also blames the lack of enforcement by anyone other than the feds. "When's the last time you heard of the state's attorney indicting an alderman?" he asked. "It's so rare as to be nonexistent. Part of the reason is political; part is resources."
As the Blagojevich case winds its way through the legal system, some experts say this will bring about reform.
But Lockwood, the retired judge, isn't so sure.
"I'm not optimistic," he said. "These things have been going on since before Capone. It hasn't changed anything before. I'm not just going to get my hopes up."