Jesse White: Cleaning up corruption is job one

by Norm Winick

Despite sending out 8.5 million sets of license plates in one year, the largest distribution in the history of the nation, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White is preoccupied with rooting out the corruption that's endemic to his office. ''When I came into this office, people were selling driver's tests; people were helping others take them; low number license plates were being sold; job promotions were based on political work. And that's just a small part of the corruption that I had to address -- and I have.''

White follows two famous predecessors who didn't have the same priorities. Paul Powell died with hundreds of thousands of unaccounted-for dollars in shoeboxes and associates of Governor George Ryan are being indicted almost weekly for scandals relating to his tenure as Secretary of State.

White was in Galesburg Tuesday to meet with the media and local Democrats. In an interview, he detailed the steps he's undertaken to address the corruption he inherited. ''The first thing I did is appoint Jim Burns, a former U.S. Attorney, as Inspector General. He established a strict code of conduct for my employees that leads to suspension, termination and even incarceration for offenders. That set a new tone in the office. In addition, I've hired some of the sharpest knives in the drawer to help us with enforcement.''

''None of my employees are required to buy tickets to fundraisers, asked to buy tickets, or required to do political work. I've always felt that if you do a good job, there will be plenty of volunteers willing to help with your campaign.''

White thinks that ticket sales were the root cause of much of the previous problems. ''If you're making, say, $20,000 a year and you're expected to buy or sell $1,000 worth of tickets, you get 'creative' in raising the money. You're also going to find a few individuals motivated by greed.''

Besides employees, White says his employees no longer solicit car dealers or anyone they license, either.

It wasn't only state employees who were cheating, either. ''When I came into office, new cars were given a temporary paper orange sticker. Over 250,000 of them were illegal; people were copying them left and right. The state lost over $20 million while using them. I introduced the only temporary plate in the nation that's tamperproof and counterfeit-proof. Your data immediately is entered into the state police LEADS system. Then, we get the permanent plates out within 90 days.'' White added that if it takes longer, it's often the fault of the dealer for not turning the paperwork in right away.

He's also attacked misuse of the handicapped tags that hang from rearview mirrors. ''People were abusing the privilege. The person who is disabled has to be in the car. We now punch holes in the tags so that law officers can tell the age and gender of the handicapped individual. If they're not there, the tag can be confiscated and the abuser fined.''

Drivers taking the CDL (Commercial Driver's License) exam now take it on a touch screen computer. ''Nobody can be told the answers because over 900 different test questions are randomly asked -- and only in English.''He's also tightened laws on people driving with licenses suspended for DUIs. ''We now have the authority to immobilize their vehicles, remove license plates or even incarcerate offenders. That group is one percent of the driving population but is involved with 27 percent of the fatalities.''

White is also trying to give out some money. ''The Court of Claims is an agency within my office. It has a $25 million budget and can supply up to $27,000 each to victims of crimes to cover burial expenses, lost wages, rent, medical costs, and so on. We found that 40 percent of the counties in Illinois submitted no claims at all. We're trying to get the word out through libraries and law enforcement -- and even funeral directors -- that victims often are entitled to some cash.''

Besides the normal duties of his office, White has also had to deal with increased security demands at the State Capitol complex under his control. ''We've used resources we could have used elsewhere to do this but we want people who visit and work in the capitol to feel safe and comfortable.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr website July 23, 2002

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