Len Small & Rod Blagojevich: A Study in Corruption
As former Governor Rod Blagojevich prepares for his trial on criminal charges, many people wonder what further outrageous actions he has planned.
His blitz of the TV talk show circuit, his putting his wife on the ridiculous “I’m A Celebrity” reality show, and his own appearance on “Celebrity Apprentice” are things no one would have expected from a former chief executive of the state. What he says or does next, no matter how outlandish, should surprise no one.
Illinois has never seen anything like it. Or has it?
A historical comparison can be made with Len Small, governor of Illinois in the 1920s. Small, arguably, was the most corrupt of all of Illinois’ governors. He embezzled more than a million dollars of state funds in a clever money laundering scheme. When he went on trial, Small used Chicago gangsters to bribe and intimidate the jury. He was acquitted. Eight jurors promptly got state jobs.
Governor Small’s administration ran a “pardon mill” where thousands of pardons and paroles were sold. The most egregious example may be that of Harry “Greasy Thumbs” Guzik, who ran the houses of prostitution for Johnny Torrio and Al Capone’s mob. Convicted of forcing a teenage girl into prostitution, Guzik was pardoned by Small before spending one day in jail.
Governor Small let the Ku Klux Klan use state facilities for their activities, and the Klan endorsed Small in 1924, 1928 and 1932.
Only two Illinois governors in history have been arrested while in office– Len Small and Rod Blagojevich.
When the state legislature was beginning its impeachment hearings in January 2009, Blagojevich thought he could make it go away by declaring it so. He tried to decree that the legislature was trying to “thwart the will of the people and remove a governor elected twice by the people without a fair hearing,” and he claimed he was being denied a “right to call witnesses.”
The hearings in both houses of the legislature were fair, even if Blagojevich confused the constitutional process with a criminal trial procedure. It was Blagojevich who chose not to participate, somehow believing the process could not continue without him.
Small also thought he could opt out of his trial by not participating. He declared that as governor, he was above the law. He claimed it was a violation of the constitutional separation of powers for the judicial branch to prosecute the executive branch.
Like George Ryan, Small had a former governor (Joseph Fifer) on his legal team.
Fifer was one of the lawyers who cited the “divine right of kings,” arguing in court that “The King can do no wrong” was a proper defense. The pre-trial hearing made national headlines in its day, just as Blagojevich’s hearing made national headlines 89 years later.
The judge ruled that there were no kings in Illinois, and Small’s trial went on.
When federal officials came for Blagojevich, he went quietly away in handcuffs. When Small was indicted, he spent several weeks running across the state to avoid arrest, threatening to call out the National Guard “with bayonets” against the sheriff. Finally, the sheriff cornered him in the governor’s mansion and took him into custody, in a dramatic public display.
Small beat the rap, and he also beat several attempts to remove him from office. When impeachment was thwarted by his Republican majority, his opponents had a genuine quo warranto case to oust him. Small responded by having his majority ram through a bill exempting the present governor from removal. After leaving office, the legislature repealed the law, and his successor, Gov. Henry Horner, quickly signed it.
Small blamed his troubles on Illinois Attorney General Edward Brundage, the man who brought the indictment. They were both in the same political party (Republican) but were political enemies. Blagojevich blamed Mike Madigan, a political enemy who also was in the same political party (Democrat), and whose daughter was the attorney general.
Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell a U.S. senate seat. Small was accused of impropriety in trying to fill a U.S. senate seat. Small’s appointee as chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, Frank L. Smith, shook down the heads of the utilities he regulated for huge campaign contributions. Smith used this money to run for the senate and he won. However, the U.S. Senate held hearings and refused to seat Smith (he is the only person in Illinois history to win a senate seat and be denied). Gov. Small’s duty was to appoint a replacement – and he tried to appoint Frank L. Smith!
Small portrayed himself as the humble farmer from downstate Kankakee, not the political manipulator in league with the Chicago machine. Blagojevich portrayed himself as the humble son of a Serbian immigrant, a man of the people, not the political manipulator in league with the Chicago machine.
Len Small cried throughout his entire career that all his troubles were the result of a conspiracy of his political enemies, who were trying to oust him from a position to which the public elected him. Nothing was ever his fault, it was the fault of everyone who was trying to get him. Sound familiar?
The most striking similarity between Small and Blagojevich is the fantasy world they both lived in, concerning their claims of innocence. We hear Blagojevich say that he absolutely did not say the things that he was recorded on tape as saying, that he absolutely did not do the things for which he was caught doing. Len Small talked the exact same way. It flies in the face of the facts, in the face of reality, and it sounds so crazy that the public almost is fooled because they cannot believe the crazy words they are hearing with own ears.
Unlike most defendants, neither Blago nor Small could keep their mouths shut, and they often got nasty and personal. And both governors acted so outrageously and told tales in their defense so fantastic that it made people wonder. The Chicago Tribune noted about Small in a Jan. 22, 1924 editorial: “Maybe his bad record is a help to him. Sometimes we think it is a vote-getter for him. It is so bad it is unbelievable. When the truth is told, people say it cannot be so, and that there must be a vicious reason behind the telling of it.”
Blagojevich has one more thing in common with Small. Both governors hated the Chicago Tribune with a passion. Blagojevich tried to pressure the Tribune to fire reporters and editors who had been critical of him, holding a Cubs deal hostage unless the writers were fired. Small had no such leverage over the newspaper, but he seldom made a speech that didn’t include a condemnation of the Tribune. The newspaper, he frequently said, represented the big corporations of “criminal profiteers” trying to rob the public, and it headed a conspiracy against him because the newspaper could not control him.
A typical Tribune editorial (Jan. 22, 1924) said of Small, “He is the worst governor the state ever had. We believe he is the worst governor any state ever had. He has contaminated everything with which he has come in contact in politics.”
Some might say the same thing about Blagojevich.
But to anyone who thinks Blagojevich may be the most outrageous governor we ever had, please get a short history lesson on Governor Len Small. Selling Barack Obama’s senate seat pales in comparison to selling bushels of pardons and paroles to Capone’s killers. Shady real estate deals with Tony Rezko are not as bad as letting the KKK use the real estate at the state fairgrounds.
It’s too bad Blagojevich does not have the power or the influences Small had. If he did, we could make a wager with a syndicate bookie that Rod just might beat this rap.
Here’s one more thought. Len Small, Illinois’ most corrupt governor, was closely allied with William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, Chicago’s most corrupt mayor. They were Republicans, and up until both had been removed from the scene in 1931, the powerful political machine in Chicago had always been Republican. It may be no coincidence that the machine has been Democrat since then, and that Thompson was the last Republican mayor of Chicago.
Jim Ridings in the author of a highly acclaimed biography of Len Small available on Amazon. He is welcome to contribute frequently to this journal.