"I've researched this pretty carefully," confided a very high level Blagojevich administration official last spring over late night cocktails. "For any of this to be illegal, somebody has to profit. There has to be money involved."
The official was responding to my questions about the swirling allegations of state contracts and jobs handed out to political insiders. Since there was no personal profit, nobody was in any serious legal danger, he claimed.
This month's verdict in Robert Sorich's trial, however, proved that person to be dead wrong.
It would be a big mistake to underestimate the significance of Robert Sorich's conviction by a federal jury. Federal prosecutors never claimed that Sorich, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's former patronage chief, took so much as a dollar in illegal payments.
Sorich wasn't even the guy who did the illegal political hiring in the Daley administration. He merely "recommended" (or, as the feds claimed, "ordered") that politically connected job candidates be hired, and if the rules were bent, broken or ignored, that wasn't his problem and, for the most part, not even his doing. He wasn't even violating any actual criminal statutes directly pertaining to government hiring. The Shakman Decree, which settled a lawsuit designed to stop political hiring in Chicago and which Sorich was accused of repeatedly violating, was a civil matter, not criminal.
Sorich didn't dole out multi-million-dollar contracts to six-figure campaign contributors. He didn't make anybody fabulously wealthy by ordering the city to allow a mayoral crony's company to set up shop at O'Hare Airport.
Instead, Sorich recommended that guys be promoted head garbage man on the truck crew. He and three others were busted for mail fraud.
Simply put, if the feds can so easily send Sorich and his three codefendants to federal prison, then a whole lot of other people are gonna be easy pickings. Aldermen, legislators, gubernatorial aides, etc. can complain all they want about how this just isn't fair, or that US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is going too far, or that it isn't right to criminalize politics, or that we ain't Iowa and never will be so Fitzgerald should just back off.
This argument is no longer about the merits, if it ever was an argument to begin with. As long as Fitzgerald is around (and maybe even after he is eventually replaced) the gig is up. There is no escape. Get used to it. I don't know how many more people will have to go to jail to get this message through to some politicos, but if the Sorich verdict doesn't work, then maybe nothing will.
The only real remaining question is how far will the federal government take this? For instance, it has long been accepted practice in the General Assembly for politically vulnerable incumbents to be given the right to sponsor high-priority or high-visibility legislation, a bigger piece of the pork pie and extra attention from staff. This has been done openly and it's no secret that it was designed to help the incumbents with their campaigns. Could that now be considered an act of depriving the citizens of their right to honest government?
When Governor Blagojevich first took office, he put two people in charge of his patronage operation: a 33rd Ward operative who was close to his father-in-law, and the chairman of the Downstate Democratic County Chairman's Association. The idea was to essentially funnel all hiring through those two political organizations. It was a good plan, as long as they didn't try to break the law by squeezing political people into protected civil service jobs. There's plenty of evidence that they may have well been the case, however. Oops.
The big problem the governor's people have now, post-Sorich, is convincing the feds that even though they put two political types in charge of personnel, hiring rules were not bent for political reasons but out of incompetence or because of a few bad apples. That could end up being a very difficult case to make.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com