The Big Idea

Political Corruption Smackdown

Which state is the most crooked—Illinois or Louisiana?

With the unmasking of Gov. Rod Blagojevich as a kleptocrat of Paraguayan proportion, Illinois now has a real chance—its first in more than a generation—to defeat Louisiana in the NCAA finals of American political corruption.

Illinois boasts some impressive stats. According to data collected by Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, more than 1,000 public officials and business people from Illinois have been convicted in federal corruption cases since 1971. Of those, an astonishing 30 were Chicago aldermen; that’s around 20 percent of those elected to the City Council during that period. If Blagojevich ultimately goes to prison, he will become the fourth out of the last eight governors to wear stripes, joining predecessors George Ryan (racketeering, conspiracy, obstruction), Dan Walker (bank fraud), and Otto Kerner (straight-up bribery). If he gets assigned to the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., Blagojevich could become the first governor to share a cell with a predecessor. *

But don’t count Louisiana out. According to statistics compiled by the Corporate Crime Reporter, it was No. 1 for the period between 1997 and 2006, with 326 federal corruption convictions. That’s a rate of 7.67 per 100,000 residents. Illinois had 524 convictions in the same period, but with a larger population, its rate was only 4.68, which puts it an embarrassing sixth. And Louisiana can boast some impressive streaks. In 2001 Jim Brown became the third consecutive insurance commissioner to be convicted. New Orleans Rep. William Jefferson, who was just defeated for re-election, liked cold, hard cash so much he kept the bundles of bills supplied by a FBI sting operation in his freezer. His brother, sister, and niece recently joined him under indictment.

Illinois’ corruption comes out of a tradition of patronage politics—not just the old Democratic machine in Chicago but also a Republican machine in the suburbs. Even as old-school politics have dwindled, however, Illinois scandals have retained their ward-boss flavor. They still tend to revolve around petty, methodical rake-offs from the quotidian operations of government—liquor licenses, elevator inspections, speeding tickets, and, above all, hiring.

The paradigmatic Illinois crook was the Paul Powell, who served as secretary of state in the 1960s. When Powell died, his executor found shoeboxes filled with $800,000 in cash (along with 49 cases of whiskey and two cases of creamed corn) in the Springfield hotel room where he lived. The money had been collected in $5 and $10 increments from applicants who wanted to make sure they passed their driving tests. Under the old Daley machine, city workers had to kick back around 5 percent of their salaries to the ward organization that guaranteed their jobs. When he insisted over a tapped phone line that “you don’t just give it away for nothing,” Blagojevich, the son-in-law of Alderman Richard Mell, was applying an old precept—though possibly for the first time at a senatorial level.

The Louisiana pathology is slightly different. Wayne Parent, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University, explains that with the discovery of oil and gas around 1912, politicians in the dirt-poor state suddenly controlled a gold mine in tax revenues. “They could spend this money virtually unsupervised,” he says, “as long as they threw enough crumbs to the masses to satisfy them—direct, tangible goods like free textbooks and paved roads.” This was the formula of populist governors Huey Long, his brother Earl Long, and Edwin Edwards. Louisiana politicians have always liked big bribes for big projects better than crooked little schemes. Edwards, for instance, is serving time for collecting a $400,000 gratuity in exchange for a casino license.

Illinois and Louisiana continue to have different styles of fraud—David Mamet vs. Walker Percy. Illinois’ corruption culture tends to be mingy, pedestrian, and shameful. State legislators who sell their votes for $25 cash in an envelope (a scandal of the 1970s) do not tend toward braggadocio. When former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski was caught filching postage stamps from the House post office, he pleaded guilty and apologized for his crimes (and was pardoned by Bill Clinton). *

Louisiana’s culture of corruption, by contrast, is flamboyant and shameless. Earl Long once said that Louisiana voters “don’t want good government, they want good entertainment.” He spent part of his last term in a mental hospital, where his wife had him committed after he took up with stripper Blaze Starr. When Sen. Allen Ellender died in office in 1972, Gov. Edwards didn’t try to auction of his seat. He appointed his wife, Elaine, possibly to get her out of town. When Edwards ran for governor in 1983, he said of the incumbent, “If we don’t get Dave Treen out of office, there won’t be anything left to steal.” (He also memorably said Treen was so slow it took him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.) Raised among figures like these, Louisianans tend to accept corruption as inevitable, to be somewhat proud of it, and to forgive it easily.

In recent years, however, Illinois and Louisiana seem to be copying each other. With Rod Blagojevich and his wife, Patricia—Lady Macbeth of Milwaukee Avenue—Illinois’ corruption has gone carnival. And since Katrina, Louisianans seem to have lost their zest for the big heist. There’s been no sympathy for those caught siphoning disaster funds. It’s going to be a close contest again this year, but I’m betting on the Fighting Illini to claim the national championship.

A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek. Correction, Dec. 15, 2008: This article originally stated that Blagojevich defeated Gov. George Ryan at the polls. George Ryan did not run for re-election in 2002; instead, Attorney General Jim Ryan received the Republican nomination and lost to Blagojevich. (Return  to the corrected sentence.) Correction, Dec. 15, 2008: This article misidentified former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski as a House Speaker. He did not hold that office. (Return to the corrected sentence.)