Home » Corruption Blagojevich Madigan Cullerton, Featured, Headline

Len Small & Rod Blagojevich: A Study in Corruption

Jim Ridings 10 June 2010 6 Comments

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.


  • Bessie said:

    Thank you for the history lesson. This is fascinating, you have inspired me to do some historical research.

  • Bessie said:

    Milorad did do something equally as bad as “letting the KKK use the real estate at the fair grounds”…It’s just that Patrick Fitzgerald hasn’t brought charges in this case and for some unknown reason has chosen to sweep it under the rug…WHEN it was in fact his most heinous crime to date by any politician…Milorad Balagojevich sold the use of a U.S. Military base in Savanna Illinois to his friend Tony Rezko and his partners’ Daniel T. Frawley and Aiham Alsammarae…Alsammarae was the ex-minister of electricity for Iraq, he was convicted there for stealing $650 million U.S.& Iraqi money…He escaped the Green Zone “Chicago style”…Rezko & Frawley put together a bid for $50 million dollars to provide security for an electric plant in Chamchamel Iraq…Frawley & Rezko were going to bring 150 UNvetted Iraqi militant’s here to Illinois to train to use AK-47’s…Rezko and Alsammarae history is pretty well known although not yet complete…Little is known of Daniel T. Frawley; He was a Chicago police officer for 7 months’ (he was fired for being an extreme racist and assaulting other officers)…Frawley has millions of dollars in judgments against him from non-payment, assault and staulking…He staged the home robbery of his sister Maureen of $100,000 CASH and 3 gun’s…when the police told him they would have to involve the FBI he became nervous and asked them not to…THE money and gun’s magically reappered 3 days’ later…
    THE potential for bringing terrorist to our own back yard by these ment is more than a little frightening and this being ignored by the FBI UNFORGIVABLE!!

  • Pat Hickey said:

    This is a nice political parallel lives ( Mr. Roeser would be a great Plutarch) – I somewhat agree with Bessie. During the period when Governor Small became the Governor of Highways, the Ku Klux Klan was more than Main Street – Margaret Sanger the Mommy of Planned Parenthood rallied with the KKK to butcher babies. Not only that The Wrigley family were discovered to be KKK fundraisers, when Irish safecrackers got the Klan’s records in Indianapolis.

    Gov. Small was an equal opportunity rogue who was cozy with the Klan, the Plutocrats and Spike O’Donnell f Chicago – whom the GUV got sprung from Joliet on an early out.

  • Bessie said:

    It was not my intention to insinuate that the KKK was not as bad or worse just that the potential crisis that could have hit Illinois by their greed could definitely be compared.

  • Pat Hickey said:

    Absolutely, Bessie. An inconvenient truth is that the Klan was very much mainstream – of course they hated Catholics and Jews with even more gusto than black Americans.

  • Defense Gets First Crack at Monk | personal injury lawyers said:

    […] Len Small & Rod Blagojevich: A Study in Corruption | Chicago Daily … […]

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.