Pay-to-play, Illinois style

Our view : Illinois' self-incriminating governor gives thievery - and politics - a bad name

December 11, 2008

One doesn't have to be an Illinois resident to be sickened by the government's case against Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich. Not since Richard Nixon has an elected official been caught on tape plotting such an abuse of power. But not even Mr. Nixon tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat like some petty thief pawning his plunder. Perhaps a David Frost interview can be arranged.

How stupid must a politician be to say such things knowing he's under investigation? Don't they get HBO in Springfield? Even Tony Soprano knew to head to his basement before making incriminating statements for fear of an FBI bug.

At least we'll give Mr. Blagojevich this: Whether he realizes it or not, the governor's threats against the Chicago Tribune editorial board provided a needed reminder of a financially struggling industry's relevance. On behalf of the employees of this outpost of the Tribune newspaper chain, owner of the Chicago Cubs and other media properties and recent Chapter 11 filer, we say thanks and stay in touch.

As tempting as it is to suggest Illinois is a unique case (Republicans in the Land of Lincoln can't exactly take the high ground as their last governor, George Ryan, aka Federal Inmate No. 16627-424, is currently serving a 6 1/2 -year sentence on corruption charges), the Free State's history is not exactly scandal-free. Another resident of the federal penal system, former Maryland state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, was captured on tape saying some pretty outrageous things, too.

One way to reduce the opportunity for political bribery on the state level is to lessen the influence of special-interest money with public campaign financing as Arizona, Connecticut and others have done. It doesn't eliminate outright bribes, but it does reduce the need for the legal kind: It allows candidates to raise sufficient funds without relying on big contributors who have business with the state.

Meanwhile, all politicians ought to be on notice: Mr. Blagojevich's alleged criminal behavior has raised public suspicions of elected leaders generally. Actions may speak louder than words, but wiretaps are generally considered pretty revealing evidence, too.

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