Illinois Issues: Congressional Exploits

Aug 20, 2015

Antics like sexual misconduct, theft and ethical indiscretions have landed Illinois' representatives in trouble for decades.

This August, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat, is wearing an electronic monitor and trying to keep cool while confined to his Washington, D.C. home. He arrived there following a short stay at a halfway house and after serving 16 months in federal prison. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to looting $750,000 from his congressional campaign fund and spending it on fur coats, flat screen TVs, children’s furniture, home remodeling and many other personal items. When Jackson was in office, his district covered parts of Chicago and the southeastern suburbs.

Former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, a Republican from Peoria, is sweating out the hot summer, sparring with investigators, and waiting to hear if he will be indicted by the U.S. attorney for allegedly misusing taxpayers’ money and campaign funds. Schock resigned his seat last March after a series of news stories about his extravagant spending for travel, entertainment for his staff and the use of nearly $40,000 of his office funds to remodel his office like a Downton Abbey set. Then the Justice Department subpoenaed members of his staff and demanded that he produce office and campaign records. The Federal Election Commission is looking into his air travel on private planes and his dealings with several major donors.

Former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds — a Chicago Democrat who also represented parts of Chicago and the southeastern suburbs — spent the last two days of July responding to news about his federal indictment for failing to file income tax returns for four years. He’s been in trouble before. In 1995, he was convicted for having sex with an underage campaign worker. Three years later, after resigning and going to prison, he was convicted for bank fraud, misusing campaign funds, and lying to the Federal Election Commission. In 2001 President Clinton commuted his seven-year sentence to allow Reynolds to spend his last two years in a halfway house. Last year Reynolds was deported from Zimbawe after he pleaded guilty to staying longer than his visa permitted. Charges that he had pornographic images on his phone were dropped.

Rep. Dennis Hastert was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999-2007.
Credit U.S. House of Representatives

And former Speaker of the U.S. House Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Yorkville, avoids the glaring sunlight as he and his lawyers prepare for either a humiliating federal criminal trial or a quick plea deal followed by a bearable sentence. In May, Hastert was indicted by federal prosecutors for structuring the withdrawal of $1.7 million dollars in violation of bank laws and for lying to the FBI. According to numerous news reports, Hastert gave the money to a former student of Yorkville High School to compensate him for concealing Hastert’s alleged misconduct decades ago when Hastert was a teacher and coach at the school.

All four men were successful public figures, elected to serve multiple terms in the U.S. House. Early in their careers two of them, Jackson and Schock, were considered young rising stars. And when Reynolds was first elected, he was named to a coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, an extraordinary appointment for a freshman congressman. Hastert served for 20 years in Congress. He stayed out of the limelight but eventually became a real star. He quietly rose to the position of speaker of the House just after the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Schock dressed well, worked out and frequently posted photos of himself on Instagram. He was named the “Hottest Freshman” by the readers of the Huffington Post and some Republicans suggested he should run for higher office.

Now this August, as a domineering El Niño shoves sweltering hot air through the Prairie State’s 18 congressional districts, the reputations of these former high-flying stars have crashed like four flamed-out meteorites, plunging one after another into a dusty soybean field. Their flaming downfalls were chronicled in front-page newspaper stories and on “breaking” TV and radio broadcasts for all to see and hear. Their colleagues, friends and families and many voters said they were shocked when they learned the embarrassing details of the congressmen’s previously secret transgressions.

For Jackson, Reynolds and Hastert, the shocking news was followed by federal indictments. When this article was written, Schock was waiting to learn if he will face criminal charges. In our state’s long history of corruption, this path, or gauntlet of shame — from scandal headlines, to indictment, to conviction, to prison — has been completed by only three Illinois congressmen: Jackson and Reynolds, and the now-deceased former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, a Democrat from Chicago.

Dan “Rosty” Rostenkowski, like Aaron Schock, was the youngest member of Congress when he first arrived in Washington, D.C. Rostenkowski got an early start in politics with the help of his father Joseph “Big Joe Rusty” Rostenkowski, alderman and committeeman of Chicago’s 32nd ward. Young Rostenkowski also was a favorite of “the Boss,” Mayor Richard J. Daley, who slated Rostenkowski for easy elections to the Illinois legislature and then at age 30 to the U.S. House. Rostenkowski, who represented the northwest side of Chicago, was re-elected 18 times. He rose through the ranks and in 1981 became chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

When the indictment of Rostenkowski finally came, it wasn't just a couple of charges of misappropriating postage stamps or failing to pay income taxes.

Over the years, Rosty was frequently investigated by news organizations, especially the Chicago Sun-Times. He was the focus of numerous articles about his conflicts of interest when he shaped tax law changes to benefit friendly corporations and cronies. In several of these deals, Rostenkowski received campaign contributions from those who benefited from the changes. And, he had profitable business relationships with other benefactors. While the many news reports of his unethical activities were minor blows to his reputation, they didn’t undermine his ability to win elections and, until 1994, they did not result in his indictment. When the indictment of Rostenkowski finally came, it wasn’t just a couple of charges of misappropriating postage stamps or failing to pay income taxes, it was a sweeping indictment listing 17 felony counts for illegal behavior, which then-U.S. Attorney Eric Holder described as an “elaborate scheme to steal more than $685,000 in taxpayer and campaign funds.”

Holder charged that Rostenkowski “regularly put people on his congressional payroll who did little or no official work, but who instead performed a variety of personal services for him, his family, his family insurance business and his campaign organizations. Payments to these people exceeded one-half million dollars.” Holder also said “Rostenkowski:

  • obtained at least $50,000 in cash from the House Post Office by disguising his transactions as stamp purchases;
  • Charged to Congress and the taxpayers more than $40,000 for valuable merchandise that he handed out as gifts to friends;
  • spent more than $70,000 of taxpayer money for personal vehicles used by himself and his family;
  • and obstructed justice by instructing a witness to withhold evidence from the grand jury.”

In April 1996, after a federal investigation that dragged out over four years and two election cycles, Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to two counts of felony mail fraud. As part of the plea bargain, prosecutors presented a factual proffer — similar to the 17-count indictment — detailing the full extent of Rostenkowski’s illegal activities during a 20-year period. He was sentenced to 17 months in federal prison. He served his time and returned to Chicago to work occasionally as consultant. Rostenkowski was 82 years old when he died in 2010.

While Rostenkowski, Reynolds and Jackson are the only three Illinois congressmen in our 197-year history to be criminally indicted, convicted and imprisoned, Illinois voters have elected a baker’s dozen of other congressmen and congresswomen who became embroiled in scandals. Some received “slaps on the wrist” for their unethical or just plain bad behavior. A few were censored, admonished or driven from office. Still others faced the wrath of the voters and were defeated at the next election. But except for the three fallen stars, none of the others were indicted.

Illinois’ history of congressional corruption begins as far back as 1909 when supporters of U.S. Rep. William Lorimar spent $100,000 to bribe 40 Illinois legislators to elect him to the U.S. Senate. This led to the expulsion of Lorimar from the Senate in 1913 and to the ratification also that year of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing the direct election of U.S. senators by the voters rather than by state legislatures.

In 1926, Frank Smith, chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, entered the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. He accepted a $125,000 campaign contribution from Samuel Insull, a powerful owner of a public utility regulated by the ICC. This was a clear conflict of interest and illegal under state law. Nonetheless, Smith won the primary and the general election. A Senate Committee refused to seat him after ruling that Smith’s election was tainted with blatant fraud and corruption. Smith ran again for the seat in a special election in 1928 but was rejected by the voters.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. on stage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Former Illinois Democratic state representative Roland ‘Libby’ Libonati was elected to Congress and served from 1958 to 1965. He was a criminal defense attorney from Chicago’s notorious First Ward, which was controlled by organized crime. Libonati worked for Al Capone and was friends with Paul “the Waiter” Ricca and other mobsters. Libonati’s staff secretary was attorney Anthony Tisci, the son-in-law of the gangster Sam Giancana. Tisci did legal work for Giancana while on Libonati’s congressional payroll. Libonati was kicked into Daley’s doghouse, not for his mob connections, but because he refused to vote for a civil rights bill that President Jack Kennedy and Daley wanted. Mayor Daley dumped Libonati from the 1963 primary and instead slated Frank Annunzio for election to the House from the 7th congressional. Annunzio was the First Ward Democratic Committeeman and a business partner with alderman and alleged mob associate John D’Arco Sr. Annunzio retained Tisci on his congressional staff and later had several scrapes with scandal. Annunzio was never disciplined by a congressional committee and never indicted or mentioned as a criminal suspect. He retired from Congress in 1992 and died at age 86 in 2001.

U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, a Republican from Wood Dale, represented the state’s 6th district from 1975 to 2007. He accepted campaign contributions from banks and savings and loan associations while serving on the Housing Banking Committee. He later joined the board of a North Riverside savings and loan. He introduced bills to deregulate S&Ls and to enrich their directors and officers. He backed legislation to allow S&Ls to reduce their reserves, which were protection against risky investments. Some observers say Hyde deserves part of the blame for the savings and loan crisis that cost taxpayers $95 billion. Despite his conflicts of interest, he apparently did not violate the law and he was not indicted. Hyde was 83 when he died in 2007.

In 1981, news reports disclosed that U.S. Rep. Thomas Railsback, a Republican from Moline, and two other congressmen shared a cottage with an attractive woman lobbyist while on a golfing vacation without their wives. The lobbyist was known as a party girl who later admitted to affairs with “fewer than a dozen” House members.

Many news stories followed and some suggested that she traded sexual favors for votes. No ethics investigations were launched and no discipline undertaken. Railsback, a 12-year incumbent, lost in the next Republican primary.

In 1983, Republican Rep. Daniel Crane from Danville, was censured by his colleagues in the U.S. House for having sex with a 17-year-old female congressional page. After serving three terms, he was defeated for re-election in 1984.

During his fourth term in office, in 1989, U.S. Rep. Gus Savage, a Chicago Democrat, was accused by a female Peace Corps volunteer of fondling her and urging her to have sex with him in a U.S. embassy limo in Kinshasa, Zaire. The House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, commonly called the Ethics Committee, investigated and found that Savage did make sexual advances to the volunteer. However, they recommended no punishment because Savage acknowledged in a letter to the woman that he “may have acted inappropriately.” Savage won his next election in 1990 but lost two years later to Mel Reynolds.

U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Chicago, and Jerry Weller, a Republican from Morris, respectively in 1998 and 2007 attracted unwanted attention for questionable real estate dealings and local tax problems. There wasn't evidence that any law was broken. No action was taken.

In 1993, Chicagoan Carol Moseley-Braun, a Chicago Democrat, became the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Six weeks before her election, NBC TV Channel 5 reported that Moseley-Braun received a check for $28,750 for her 71-year-old mother's share of inherited timber rights. Her mother was in a nursing home and on Medicaid. Opponents clamored that the public aid department should receive the money and that the IRS should investigate. A week before the election, Moseley-Braun reimbursed the state with a $15,239 check. She won the election but only served one term before losing in 1998.

During her term, several news reports raised questions about her relationship with her former campaign manager and fiance, Kgosie Mathews, who was also a lobbyist for a foreign country. She and Mathews visited the military dictator of Nigeria without State Department permission. Earlier that year she testified in opposition to sanctions against Nigeria at a Senate sub-committee. News reports also alleged that Mathews and Moseley-Braun spent $281,000 of her campaign funds on vacations, designer outfits, cars and jewelry. The Justice Department did not prosecute because of insufficient evidence and the Federal Election Commission found there was no evidence that Moseley-Braun had personally used campaign funds.

The Senate Ethics Committee admonished Burris but found no 'actionable violations of the law.'

Former Illinois Comptroller Roland Burris, a Chicago Democrat, lied about his discussions about campaign contributions for Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his desire to be appointed to the U.S. Senate seat previously occupied by President Barack Obama. After he took office, the Senate Ethics Committee admonished Burris but found no “actionable violations of the law.” In 2013, investigators for the Better Government Association and the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed that AT&T gave a $1 million grant to a nonprofit corporation founded by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, while Rush served on the House Telecommunications Committee. Other issues were raised and last month the House Ethics Committee announced it was continuing its investigation of Rush.

In the past 20 years, three Illinois congressmen have been convicted of public corruption for serious crimes — primarily for using taxpayers’ money and campaign funds to enrich themselves and their families. A fourth congressman has been indicted but not yet tried. And a fifth is under investigation for misusing campaign funds and his office allowance.

Out of these five, three are Democrats and two are Republicans. Three of the congressmen have each served in the House for more than 20 years and two were short-timers.

Add 11 others, whose scandalous behavior did not result in indictments, to get a total of 16 corrupt or unethical congressmen. While more than half of these were Democrats and most were in office for more than three terms, these factors don’t fully explain why some congressmen are corrupt or unethical and others are not. Congressmen from districts in Cook County are statistically more corrupt or unethical than those from outside Cook County or downstate. However, that may only be because more than 60 percent of the U.S. representatives in Illinois are from the Chicago metropolitan area.

We also can’t yet determine if candidates are corrupt before they are elected to Congress or if they are corrupted after taking office. We only know about corrupt behavior when the perpetrators are caught, and usually that is after they take office.

And while some unethical behavior by those in Congress may not be prosecuted criminally or even disciplined by the House or Senate, a serious corruption scandal usually, but not always, results in defeat at the next election. But we can say with almost total certainty that indictment and conviction means the end of a congressional career.

Thomas J. Gradel is a free-lance writer and co-author, with Dick Simpson, of Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism and Criminality, published in February by the University of Illinois Press. Previously Gradel was a political media consultant for candidates, labor unions and nonprofit organizations. He is a member of the National Writers Union.