CHARLESTON — Many wanted U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel to talk about the two trials of this young century in Illinois.
Instead, the federal judge involved in the corruption trials of impeached Illinois Gov. Rodney Blagojevich went back two centuries for a lecture on the evolution of the breach of public trust in the state when Abraham Lincoln was alive. Zagel lectured to a standing-room-only crowd in the Eastern Illinois University Doudna Fine Arts Center recital hall Thursday.
The former prosecutor and director of the Illinois State Police explained breach of the public trust (a term he believes is more accurate than the overly broad “public corruption”) was less encompassing in Lincoln’s time in Illinois due to the limited nature of government and a less vigorous economy as the state was developing.
“In 1835, the state legislature voted for internal improvements for all parts of the state. But the [financial] Panic of 1837 killed those public works projects,” Zagel said.
Today’s paths to corruption in politics were not as present before Lincoln became president, Zagel explained.
“People then were in fear Illinois would become a backwater to river cities like St. Louis or Evansville, Ind. That is hard to understand today but it was a real fear then,” Zagel said. “Those who could build railroads didn’t have to come to state officials on bended knees. It is similar to today with corporations asking for incentives to stay in Illinois.”
Politicians were far from pure during that era, but they had a stronger bond with everyday people, unlike some politicians today dependent on large donations and lobbyists, Zagel said.
“In Lincoln’s time a candidate walked and talked and worked to make a good impression for winning a few thousand votes,” Zagel said.
That changed years after Lincoln’s death in 1865. The judge talked of 19th century corruption cases stemming from a city building painting contract, streetcar bids and a bogus gas company scheme in Chicago. Business and government were entering into a new mutual role.
Today, the perception of political corruption on all levels of government can have a devastating effect. Zagel believes a turning point in the country is when the American public “believes corruption is the rule rather than the exception.”
It could get even worse when taxpayers stop complaining and ask for their kickback, favor or exception to the law or ordinance.
“That will be a terrible day when the national slogan becomes ‘Where’s Mine?’” Zagel said.
During the question period from the audience that included many Eastern students, Zagel deflected any questions on Blagojevich or other specific federal cases. Zagel declined comments on the Blagojevich case because it is under appeal and judges are restricted on comments relating to their work on the bench.
But he did offer his opinion on the integrity level of Illinois politics today.
“Illinois is not a good place. But we’re not the worst place,” he said.
He put ethics and politics in perspective as well.
He talked about the role of transparency in government whether through exhaustive news coverage or document access through the Internet. He said the federal judge selection process is possibly the most open action in American government today.
He also commented that everyone has taken some bribe during their lifetime, including cookies for completing simple tasks like cleaning a room when they were young. He declined to answer what his favorite cookies are.
“I never accepted them,” he said with a slight smile he has probably offered many times on the bench.
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