Video: President Joe Biden hits town as a historic abortion vote is taken on the floor of the U.S. Senate, that and more with our Spotlight Politics team of Paris Schutz and Heather Cherone. (Produced by Alex Silets) Editor's Note: The company Safe Speed has not been charged or accused of wrong doing and the company blames a former executive for corrupt activity, without the firm's knowledge.
For the third year in a row, Chicago is America’s most corrupt city, and Illinois is the third-most corrupt state, according to an annual report from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The report, co-authored by University of Illinois at Chicago professor and former 44th Ward Ald. Dick Simpson, is based on an analysis of the public corruption statistics published by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The sheer number and political stature of the Illinois elected officials and business leaders who were implicated, indicted or convicted in 2020 is staggering,” Simpson said.
In 2020, there were 22 public corruption convictions in the Northern District of Illinois, which includes all of Chicago and the northern third of Illinois — a slight drop from the 26 convictions recorded in 2019, according to the report.
Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic nearly shut down state and federal courts, 2020 was one of the most “significant” twelve months in the “startling saga of political and public corruption in Chicago and Illinois,” Simpson said.
“It's importance rivals 1983 when the federal Operation Greylord investigation was first revealed,” Simpson said. “And it’s likely that, 2020’s impact on Illinois’ politics and government soon will be seen as greater than 2003, when former Gov. George Ryan was indicted for racketeering and obstructing justice; 2008, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was indicted; or even 2009, when Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office.”
The rest of the state had nine additional public corruption convictions in 2019 for a state total of 31, according to the Department of Justice’s 2020 report on its public integrity division section.
The report, co-authored by Marco Rosaire Rossi and Thomas J. Gradel, uses a formula that compares the number of each area’s corruption convictions with its population to create the ranking system that incorporates data from 1976 to 2020.
Many of the corruption cases detailed by Simpson and his coauthors focus on two sprawling investigations that have ensnared dozens of politicians: the probe into Commonwealth Edison’s ties to former House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political operation and the investigation into whether elected officials accepted bribes as part of a push to install red-light cameras in the city and suburbs.
In July 2020, Commonwealth Edison acknowledged that company officials arranged jobs, contracts and payoffs to associates of Madigan to win the favor of the state’s most powerful lawmaker.
With Madigan’s backing, state lawmakers passed laws that allowed ComEd to hike electricity rates.
As part of deferred prosecution agreement, the firm agreed to pay a $200 million fine to resolve federal corruption charges.
In November 2020, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and three lobbyists for the firm — Michael McClain, John Hooker and Jay Doherty were charged with conspiring to bribe Madigan by providing little- or no-work lobbying contracts and other benefits to Madigan’s friends and associates. All four pleaded not guilty, and are set to stand trial in September.
Madigan was indicted in April on 22 criminal charges as part of a sweeping indictment that alleged he led a criminal enterprise whose purpose was to enhance his political power and financial wellbeing for nearly a decade. Madigan has pleaded not guilty.
In the red-light camera probe, former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, pleaded guilty in January 2020 to one count of bribery and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Sandoval died in December 2020 after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Sandoval admitted that he took more than $70,000 in bribes from a former executive for Safe Speed, the red-light company. The firm itself has not been accused of wrongdoing, and officials have said the former executive acted without the company’s knowledge or approval.
In September 2020, former Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski pleaded guilty to accepting more than $250,000 in bribes and resigned from the board and as mayor of suburban McCook. In addition, federal prosecutors charged Tobolski’s chief of staff at the county board, Patrick Doherty, with three counts of bribery in connection to Doherty’s position as a sales agent for Safe Speed.
Tobolski did not plead guilty to charges connected to the red-light camera probe
In April 2022, former Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta pleaded guilty to accepting a $5,000 bribe from the Safe Speed executive and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
“Safe Speed fully supports the federal government’s investigation into public corruption and will continue to aid their efforts in any way it can,” according to a statement from the company to WTTW News.
The indictment of Madigan and the unraveling of his “enterprise could change the outlook of criminally minded politicians,” Simpson said.
“They now know that the U.S. Attorney is willing and able to deploy its vast resources and to use statutes outlawing racketeering to prosecute politicians at the highest level as well as prominent businesspeople who engage in direct and indirect bribery,” Simpson said.
Note: This story was updated May 12 to include a statement from Safe Speed.