Governors Behaving Badly Give Their States a Unique Place in American History

Even the most cynical of Americans feel that public officials have a duty to uphold the public trust. Since there seems to be fewer and fewer politicians who pursue public service for the good of, well, the public, calls for transparency on the part of our government are how we acknowledge that power can tempt even the most well meaning. Nevertheless, when they fail it still comes as a shock to those who continue to believe that public service is an honorable duty.

The conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was particularly jarring for his supporters considering his track record of focusing on his unwavering conservative ideals. There was little indication he would go on to be the first Virginia governor to be indicted and ultimately convicted. While he may be a first for Virginia, he is just the latest in a long list of governors behaving badly.

Like McDonnell, all of them were tempted by money and power.

As long as there has been politics and money, there has been corruption. The first United States governor to be impeached occurred in 1862. Charles Lawrence Robinson was the first governor of Kansas, starting before it was part of the union. Robinson was first arrested for “treason and usurpation of office” after he was elected governor during the 1855 Kansas constitutional convention. Found not guilty on all charges, he was sworn as governor again in 1861, shortly after Kansas joined the union. A little over a year later, he was impeached for “high misdemeanors” for selling Kansas bonds below the rate that had been established by the legislature. He was again found not guilty.

While Robinson’s charges are believed to have been politically motivated, there is little doubt to the guilt of the governors of recent history.

Edward D. DiPrete served as Rhode Island’s governor from 1985 to 1991. Even with Rhode Island’s long history of corruption, DiPrete was able to still shock them. One year before his term ended, investigators began looking into the awarding of state contracts by DiPrete and his son. In 1994 they were indicted on numerous charges including bribery, racketeering and extortion after taking nearly $300,000 from several people awarded state contracts. Four years later, in a plea deal to provide leniency for his son, DiPrete pleaded guilty to 18 charges and served 11 months of a one year prison sentence, becoming the first Rhode Island governor to do so.

All of this is child’s play when considering the governors of Illinois.

It should be no surprise that the state which gave national fame to America’s most famous gangster, Al Capone, would have the dubious honor of having the most governors sent to prison. The first two governors, Otto Kerner and Daniel Walker, were former governors at the time of their convictions for crimes not related to their tenure. Kerner was convicted of a long list of charges ranging from bribery to tax evasion and served in a federal prison before being released early due to having terminal cancer. Daniel Walker served time related to the failed savings and loan scandal in the 1980s.

George Ryan was the first Illinois governor to be charged with crimes related to his time in office. He was convicted of fraud and racketeering charges that began when he served as Secretary of State. It was the investigation into a 1994 scandal in which the Secretary of State office employees issued licenses for bribes that began Ryan’s fall. At the time of his conviction in 2006, prosecutors claimed that the state of Illinois was essentially for sale under Ryan. He was released in 2013 after serving a 6½ year prison sentence.

While Ryan was still in prison, another Illinois Governor was using the recent election of the first black president of the United States as a get rich quick scheme — really rich.

When Barack Obama was elected president, his Senate seat became available. Per Illinois law, the governor was tasked with appointing a successor. Then Governor Rod Blagojevich decided this was a golden opportunity to increase his fortune. Like a sports agent with the hottest draft pick, Blagojevich took bids from contenders wanting to be the junior senator from Illinois. With an impending ethics bill due to become law the January after the election, Blagojevich spent the two months after the election soliciting millions of dollars in donations. For those who refused, he threatened to rescind state funds for projects, like a proposed Children’s hospital in Chicago. He also threatened editorial boards of newspapers that criticized him.

Blagojevich kept his eye on the future during these “negotiations,” indicating his wish to get a position in the Obama administration or at least a high paying position in a nonprofit. He also pondered job prospects for his wife. In 2011, he was convicted of 17 conspiracy charges. He is currently serving his 14 year sentence in a federal prison. Blagojevich also has the dubious distinction of being one of only eight governors impeached and removed from office.

When Blagojevich started serving his sentence in March 2012, Illinois also became the first state to have two former governors in prison at the same time.