Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2013, 6:00 am

Editorial: No laughing matter

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

"The honest lawmakers of any city can be counted on your fingers. I could count Chicago's on one hand." -- Al Capone.

Illinois and that city have spent almost a century trying to live down the gangster reputation created by the Chicago mobster. But, as Capone might have predicted, it is the behavior of today's politicians which feeds our current shame.

The latest political embarrassment may, by virtue of his famous family, have the highest national profile of all.

"Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let 'em down, OK?" U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. asked reporters as he left a federal courtroom after pleading guilty Thursday to converting three-quarters-of-a-million dollars in campaign funds for personal use. The Rev. Jesse Jackson's son faces up to five years in prison. Wife Sandra, an ex-Chicago alderman and, prosecutors say, a willing partner in crime, also pleaded guilty to one count of filing false tax returns. She, too, is awaiting sentencing.

The extent to which they let down those folks back home is monumental even by Illinois standards. Washington observers say it is the largest case involving personal use of campaign money they have ever seen. The level of their greed is mind boggling, with money spent on things like Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix and other memorabilia, furs, gold-plated watches and even a couple of stuffed and mounted elk heads.

But more alarming than the laundry list of indulgences is the abandon with which they were illegally obtained. Who knows how much more might have been added to the list had the pair not been found out.

Some have suggested that Democrat colleague Barack Obama's meteoric rise helps explain Rep. Jackson's bad behavior. Others blame growing up in his father's giant shadow. His lawyers cite the bipolar disorder that led him to be AWOL from Congress for months as he underwent treatment at Mayo Clinic. His lawyers hope that will mitigate his sentence.

If the judge takes that into consideration, we also urge him to keep in mind these comments made Thursday by Ronald Machen, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.

"I'm sure Mr. Jackson's attorneys will have an opportunity to put forth their side of the story," he said. "I want to hear what they have to say, but it's hard for me to imagine how they're going to reconcile this scheme as being a byproduct of any recent medical condition."

Also it's important to note that he engaged in those activities while effectively serving his district and his party, even giving speeches at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

"For seven years, Mr. Jackson betrayed the very people he inspired by stealing their campaign donations to finance his extravagant lifestyle," the prosecutor said. "His fall from grace will hopefully chasten other leaders who are tempted to sacrifice their ideals and integrity to line their own pockets."
Sadly, we've heard such hopes expressed before only to have them dashed. Illinois has become a political laughingstock whose stock in trade isn't gangsters but crooked politicians.

Even other state politicians can't resist piling on. Remember the jokes about Illinois Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad made during a Q-C trip last March? "These two guys are standing in the chow line in prison. One says to the other, 'You know, the food was a lot better back when you were governor.'
"That's the difference between politics in Illinois and Iowa."

Like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, we resent those "insinuendos." Trouble is, we so often deserve them.

A retired staffer vacationing on Okaloosa Island, Fla., was embarrassed last week to hear Illinois' dirty laundry aired there. The radio talk show host dished about the Jacksons, Rod Blagojevich, Rita Crundwell and the state's terrible finances before declaring, "If you live in Illinois, move. If you are thinking about moving to Illinois, DON'T." Ouch!

We're tired of the jokes at our expense and our leaders should be, too. Indeed, the biggest joke of all is the contention that successful prosecution of corrupt pols like Rep. Jackson George Ryan and Blagojevich is that the system works.

As old Mayor Daley and his equally linguistically challenged son, Richard M. Daley, might have said, "What really makes Illinois corrupt is the corruption."
That won't change until we stop pretending that we've attacked the culture of corruption and pass tough ethics reforms that will really do something about it -- and that is no joke.