- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2008

Take that, Louisiana.

Revelations this week that Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and his chief of staff have been charged with trying to sell the Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama have sparked a perverse debate over which state is the nation’s most corrupt, with partisans rushing to defend the (dis)honor of their native lands.

Popular liberal blogger Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com triggered a firestorm when he suggested that Illinois, Louisiana and newcomer Alaska were the clear front-runners, as outraged residents of New Jersey, Nevada, Arizona and other contenders weighed in.

“Who could leave Rhode Island off the list of most corrupt states?!!” poster “JP” demanded. “This is defamatory!! Ocean Staters will NOT be insulted in this way!!”

But New Orleans poster “BB” said no “wannabe” state could compete with Louisiana’s heritage of political vice, from legendary governors such as Huey Long and Edwin Edwards to indicted and just-defeated Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Democrat whom prosecutors accuse of stashing $90,000 in illicit funds in his freezer.

“Louisiana will let any state in the union pick the turf and the time,” BB wrote.

“You want state-level corruption? Local? Bring it. Historical tradition? Game on. Recent scandal? Easy money. You name the category, any category, and we’ll have a big dog in that fight.”

Russell Mokhiber, editor of Corporate Crime Reporter, said the Illinois vs. Louisiana smackdown is akin to a Big Ten vs. SEC clash in college football’s Bowl Championship Series.

“If there was a BCS for corruption, I think right now you’d have to put Illinois in the title game,” he said. “They’re showing why they’re a true contender.”

Mr. Mokhiber’s Washington, D.C.-based weekly legal newsletter has used Justice Department figures to quantify state-level corruption.

Based on data from 1997 to 2006 (the 2007 data are due to be posted very shortly, Mr. Mokhiber said), Louisiana gets bragging rights with 7.67 federal corruption convictions per 100,000 residents, followed by Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Ohio and Illinois. Oregon finished dead last, with 0.68 convictions for every 100,000 Oregonians.

The list ranked only the 35 most populous states, which means states with colorful political traditions such as Rhode Island, Delaware and Alaska were not included.

Mr. Obama on Thursday was asked about his home state’s susceptibility to official malfeasance in high places. Of the past 10 Illinois governors, five - including Mr. Blagojevich - have faced criminal charges. If convicted, Mr. Blagojevich theoretically could be a cell mate of his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, convicted in 2006 of racketeering, bribery and extortion.

“I think in Illinois, as is true in American politics generally, there are two views of politics,” said Mr. Obama, who has denied any wrongdoing in the search for his successor.

“There’s a view of politics that says you go in this for sacrifice and public service, and then there’s a view of politics that says this is a business, that it’s wheeling and dealing and ‘What’s in it for me?’” Mr. Obama said.

Even the FBI agent who helped build the case against Mr. Blagojevich displayed a backhanded admiration for the brazen political mores of the state.

Asked whether Illinois was the most corrupt state in the union, Robert Grant, special agent in charge of the bureau’s Chicago office, said he was not an expert on the other 49 contenders.

“But I can tell you one thing: If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it’s one hell of a competitor.”

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