By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The city where gangster Al Capone once kept the mayor on his payroll ranked first in public corruption convictions over the past three decades though the recent pace, perhaps because lessons have been learned or due to earnest prosecutors, researchers said on Wednesday.
"We here lead the country in corruption, just like in Al Capone's era of corrupting Mayor Big Bill Thompson" during the 1920s, said University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist and former city alderman Dick Simpson, who spoke to reporters before testifying to a city task force on ethics.
An analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics by a team led by Simpson showed the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, led all 94 federal districts with 1,531 convictions for public corruption since 1976.
The California district that includes Los Angeles ranked second in the period with 1,275 convictions and the district covering New York City's Manhattan was third with 1,202. Both have larger populations than Chicago's district.
Still, there was a pronounced decline in federal corruption cases in the Chicago region after it led the nation with 610 convictions during the 1990s. Between 2000 and 2009, the Chicago district had 367 convictions and in 2010 there were 46, ranking the city fourth during both periods.
"The lessons of the earlier 25 years probably had an effect," said political analyst Don Rose, who was not involved in the research. "The politicians saw the dire consequences of getting caught, and the voters may have taken more care in selecting who represented them."
Hard-charging federal prosecutors beginning with Jim Thompson in the 1970s, who was elected Illinois governor in 1976, and current U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald beginning in 2001, also struck fear into tempted officials, Rose said.
The report showed Illinois, the fifth-most populous state, was also rife with public corruption, ranking third behind much-larger New York and California in public corruption convictions between 1976 and 2010, the last year for which data was collected.
Illinois' last two governors and four out of the past seven were convicted of federal crimes. Simpson singled out the state capital of Springfield as sorely in need of reform.
Besides the four governors, prosecutors in Illinois have ensnared two U.S. Congressmen, a state treasurer, an attorney general, the state's auditor, seven state lawmakers, numerous judges, appointed local officials, policemen, and city inspectors since 1976.
Only the District of Columbia and Louisiana had higher rates of public corruption than Illinois on a per capita basis, according to the report produced by Simpson and Jim Nowlan of the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
Simpson, an academic who was elected alderman in 1971 as an opponent of Chicago's Democratic political machine and reelected in 1975 before leaving the city council to return to academia, said he believed most public officials convicted of cheating or stealing "don't ever think they're going to be caught.
"For every public official caught, there are 10 others involved in the scheme who weren't," he added.
There were signs in the year-old administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel of increasing transparency in government contracts and a dismantling of what Simpson derided as "the old boy network" that dominated city-directed business for years and bred corruption.
The 5,000-strong patronage army of city workers once controlled by Emanuel's predecessor, Mayor Richard Daley, had shrunk, though that was largely due to the paring of city payrolls due to budget cuts, Simpson said.
"Clearly something has to be done to stem corruption" in Chicago and in Illinois, he said, citing citizen outrage evident in public opinion polls.
Simpson recommended expanded oversight by the city's inspector general, and stricter ethics and campaign finance laws to get rid of gifts to politicians, lobbying by public officials, nepotism and patronage in hiring.
(Editing by Greg McCune)