Unmasking 'Crooked, Illinois' as nation's top corrupt state

CHICAGO (WLS) -- "A couple of politicians getting together in Chicago is a crime scene now."

That punchline from former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer might be funny, if the crimes weren't so deeply rooted here.

Since Chicago's first corruption trial in 1869, thousands of government and business officials have been convicted of public profiteering.

Now there is astounding new data compiled by the ABC7 I-Team that pegs Illinois as the most corrupt state in America; number one on the country's corruption map.

According to new federal figures obtained by the I-Team, there have been 891 convictions for public corruption in Illinois since the year 2000, the most in the nation.

"People have said, there's a quote, 'like it's the Chicago way,' but it shouldn't be the Chicago way," said Kathy Enstrom, special agent in charge of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division in Chicago. "I don't think it's fair when somebody tries to bribe their way into something or take money or they shouldn't take it and use it for personal gain."

Most of the cases prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Public Integrity Unit here have been in Chicago and northern Illinois.

"To some degree, it's in the DNA," said ABC7 legal analyst Gil Soffer, also a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago. "The U.S. Attorney's office here has been particularly creative, and particularly aggressive in prosecuting public corruption cases and very successful in doing it."

The 891 convictions on the books this century don't even include the most recent crooked Illinoisan to go down just last week. Ex-state senator Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to pocketing a quarter-million dollars in bribes to protect the red-light traffic camera industry.

After his court appearance, Sandoval said, "I'm ashamed. I'm sorry."

Sandoval's fall from political glory was signaled last fall when federal agents carried away boxes of records and electronics from his Chicago home and offices in Springfield.

And now Sandoval is cooperating with the feds.

"The goal is always to move up and the only way to move up in a criminal conspiracy it's to get the cooperation of the people who are lower," said Jeff Cramer, now with the Berkeley Research Group in Chicago.

"People should be nervous, " House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said last week after news broke of Sandoval's cooperation.

"We're all aware of the dark cloud that hangs over the state of Illinois, particularly this capitol, with the massive ongoing federal investigation into political corruption," said State Rep. Grant Wherli (R-Naperville).

The ongoing federal investigation that ensnared Sandoval is older than has been reported. The I-Team has learned that a federal grand jury looking into statewide corruption actually began hearing evidence in 2014. Those under indictment, or under investigation, are considered just the beginning of a still-expanding federal case.

"It's a very stubborn problem we seem to have here in Illinois..." acknowledged U.S. Attorney John Lausch whose office is now handling the broad corruption probe.

From Illinois governors to powerful members of Congress, judges, alderman and Outfit bosses, IRS criminal investigators have been the backbone of many public corruption investigations.

"We want to see how much they report every year and then we compare that with what their lifestyle is like," explained Enstrom. "Are they spending money on boats, and cars, and expensive houses, and things vacations, things like that? If there was a big discrepancy we know we are on the right track."

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker hammered home the state's corruption problem in his State of the State speech last week.

"It's no longer enough to sit idle while under-the-table deals, extortion, or bribery persist," Pritzker told legislators.

Proposals now in the General Assembly would crack down on lobbyist-legislators and tighten some politicians' financial disclosures.

"You can legislate good behavior to a point," said Soffer. "At some point the voters have to make clear and clearly, strongly their desire to see an ethical government."

Curbing the continuing corruption in Illinois may be an overwhelming, decades-long problem. But the cause is not complicated, according to Enstrom.

"Money is the root of the evil," she told the I-Team.

And where will it all end?

Ex-federal prosecutor Cramer says "not anytime soon." And he says the higher echelon of the political food chain may not be in the clear.

"We've seen some large companies we've seen some prominent and individuals. Once it gets into gaming and Illinois especially with what's coming forward with some of the casinos and stuff that could open up a Pandora's Box," Cramer said.
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