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4 of Illinois’s Last 7 Governors Were Jailed. Why?

Clockwise from top: Otto Kerner Jr, Dan Walker, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan

Our newest episode with David Greising of The Better Government Association really opened our eyes to the impact of investigating, and the role that good journalism and concerned citizens play in making sure our policymakers stay honest.

Listen to our interview with David Greising here!

It’s no secret that Illinois has a problem with corruption, and nothing better exemplifies that than the shocking fact that four of their last seven governors ended up in prison during or after their tenure as Illinois’s highest ranking official.

We thought it would be interesting to take a look at who they were, and why corruption ultimately sunk them.

Otto Kerner—Governor from 1961-1968

Otto Kerner Jr. was born in Chicago in 1908. A decorated veteran of WWII and the son of a US District Attorney, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became the USDA for the Northern District of Illinois in 1947. He continued to rise in prominence, becoming a Cook County judge in 1955 and then Governor of Illinois in 1960.

As the Democratic Governor of Illinois, Kerner advocated for mental health services, education, and equal housing. Rising further still, President Lyndon B. Johnson tapped him to lead the National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders (termed the Kerner Commission)—which is widely viewed as a milestone of the Civil Rights movement—in 1967.

His record as governor was so good his nickname was “Mr. Clean.” He resigned as governor in 1968 to accept a position as a Federal Judge. Things were going well, until Mr. Clean had a very bad day at the racetrack.

While serving as governor, Kerner was secretly purchasing stock of the Arlington Park racetrack at a significant discount to face value. In return, he used his executive power to ensure the track got prime racing days, as well as two highway exits for added convenience. His grift went unnoticed until the owner of the track declared the bribe on her taxes, assuming it was just standard operating procedure in Illinois. Whoops.

Judge Kerner was eventually found guilty of 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, lying under oath, and tax evasion. He spent 3 years in prison, and was publicly disgraced.

Dan Walker—Governor from 1973-1977

Just 5 years after Mr. Clean fell from grace, Illinois elected Dan Walker, another Democrat, to the office of governor. He won election by painting himself as a man of the people, walked 1,197 miles across Illinois as an election stunt, and won an upset victory as a political newcomer.

Walker only served one controversial term, because he was constantly butting heads with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. He was unable to deliver on his populist promises, and rankled the Illinois business community after being labeled “pro-union.”

He purchased two savings and loan companies after his stint in office, which he used as “a personal piggy bank” according to Federal Judge Ann Williams. Walker was convicted in 1987 of more than $1.4 million of fraudulent bank loans, and ultimately spent 18 months in prison.

He was the last Democratic governor of Illinois until Rod Blagojevich, who we’ll get to in a little while.

George Ryan—Governor from 1999-2003

George Ryan, another lifelong Illinois politician, served in the Illinois House of Representatives, as well as Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State before becoming a Republican governor in 1999. Due to corruption charges, he only served one term. His most famous moment as governor came 48 hours before his term was up, when he cleared the state’s death row, condemning capital punishment as fundamentally flawed and unfair.

While Secretary of State of Illinois, he became embroiled in a scandal over trucking licenses. After 6 children were killed in an accident caused by a semi-truck in 1994, investigators found the driver had paid a bribe to get his license. Ryan fired the investigators and buried the probe.

When Ryan ran for governor in 1998, the federal government launched “Operation Safe Road.” The investigation looked at Ryan and his staffers, and found overwhelming corruption. At least 75 people were convicted of wrongdoing, and Ryan was found guilty on numerous charges of accepting numerous cash payments, gifts, vacations, and personal services in exchange of access to his office. 

Ryan spent five-and-a-half years in prison for his corruption.

Rod Blagojevich—Governor from 2003-2009

Riding off the wave of public sentiment created by corruption charges brought against outgoing governor George Ryan, the people of Illinois elected Democrat Rod Blagojevich to the position in the 2002 election.

A former Illinois House of Representatives member, Blagojevich was re-elected to a second term. Things went downhill after that. He became ensnared in a corruption investigation called “Operation Board Games,” after which federal investigators began to take a closer look at the governor.

After Barack Obama, who was then a US Senator for Illinois, won the US Presidential election in 2008, Blagojevich decided to cash in on his ability to appoint a successor. He was caught on tape calling the appointment “(expletive) golden” and hoped to exchange it in return for a litany of favors, including a $1.5 million donation to his campaign fund.

Blagojevich was indicted in late 2008 on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and of soliciting bribery. He was also charged with using “pay-to-play” schemes to raise money for his campaign, and obtain financial benefits for himself. 

After his arrest and indictment, he was impeached and removed from office in early 2009. He went to trial, and was found guilty of 17 counts of wire fraud, soliciting bribes, attempted extortion, as well the conspiracy to commit those crimes.

He was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison, and is currently still serving time.


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