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Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 03:37 pm

Don’t tolerate public corruption in Springfield

Public corruption in Illinois and Chicago is well documented with its roots predating the infamous gangster, Al Capone. In 1911, political scientist and Chicago alderman Charles Merriam said, “Chicago is unique. It is the only completely corrupt city in America.” Thankfully, Springfield and Sangamon County rarely make national headlines for high-level public corruption or share Chicago’s notoriety. But, our region’s residents should resist feeling superior particularly when plagued by troubles back home.

Consider our current dilemma. At the April 30 committee of the whole meeting of the city council, aldermen learned how top administration officials altered language in the police contract to reduce the amount of time certain internal affairs files needed to be kept. Then, internal affairs documents were shredded, some of which were part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking information on the 2008 arrest of the current deputy police chief, Cliff Buscher, then widely believed to be the heir apparent.

Conflicting and defensive explanations from top administration officials coupled with clumsy attempts at damage control fueled a frenzied media response from those seeking answers to the central question in all unfolding scandals: Who knew what when?

As I write, the incident is under criminal investigation, the city’s top lawyer resigned, the chief of police announced his retirement, the deputy police chief has stepped aside and the mayor has appointed an interim police chief.

This city scandal is eerily reminiscent of one we just lived through with Springfield Public Schools. Remember when two teachers illegally leaked student data to help muddy the reputation of a successful school and a top district administrator tried to cover it up? That debacle was hastily disposed of by allowing the administrator and one of the teachers to retire and the other teacher to be reassigned.

It’s easy to unearth plenty of other examples of scandal or abuse of power in our backyard. Last May, Illinois Times reporter Patrick Yeagle wrote “Courting favor,” a story about favoritism in the Sangamon County court system. Earlier in the year, the Springfield Park District executive director resigned after his generous use of vacation benefits and salary advances came to light. Then there’s the Jerome police officer, the son of the village president, who was indicted last June on charges of obstructing justice and official misconduct.

Other past scandals include the high-profile felony conviction of a top Sangamon County Republican Party leader; the Sangamon County coroner’s office travesty; the University of Illinois Springfield softball sexual assault scandal; the deaths of three inmates in three months at the Sangamon County jail; a federal cocaine ring bust with links to a Sangamon County elected official, two former assistant state’s attorneys, another lawyer and a former federal probation officer; and the repeated use of a Taser by a Springfield city police officer on a woman who was eight months pregnant.

It’s hard to gauge whether these events are unconnected, isolated events resulting primarily from lone bad actors or if deeper systemic elements are at play. Either way, the broader community should be alarmed and seeking answers.

Perhaps the patronage-based, insider-dominated political system – still very much alive in Springfield and Sangamon County – is a factor. It influences who is elected and who gets government jobs and contracts, protects its friends from penalty and creates a sense of immunity among members.

Larry Sabato, a nationally recognized political analyst from University of Virginia, adds insight while talking about Illinois in an article written by Dave McKinney for Illinois Issues:

“The central and most vital point about corruption is it flourishes where people permit it to, in part because they expect it in the normal course of events. A classic case comes from your state with Otto Kerner being caught solely because the people extending the bribes to him actually deducted it from their taxes as a necessary and ordinary business expense,” he says. “Their argument was, ‘This is how business is done in Illinois.’ That’s what has to change. It’s always up to the people. It’s a democracy. They have to go beyond the images.”

Collective silence and indifference create the conditions that permit corruption to flourish in Springfield and Sangamon County. The current scandal with the City of Springfield exemplifies a larger pattern of calculated deceit for personal gain and callous disregard of the public trust.

To stem the tide, we need to get this one right. Once the whole truth is revealed and those involved are held accountable, the community should begin crafting broader strategies to address the root causes of the problem.

Accountable, responsive and responsible government does not invent itself in a vacuum. It results when vibrant, engaged, attentive communities pay attention, speak out and pitch in. As Professor Sabato said, “It’s always up to the people.”

Sheila Stocks-Smith works with nonprofits, government and related sectors on special projects.
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