Inglorious Power Of The Illinois Governor's Office

Published July 29, 2021
Inglorious Power Of The Illinois Governor's Office

The Notoriety of the Illinois Governor’s Office

Sigh. Corruption in Illinois politics never seems to leave the newspaper headlines. Former Governor George Ryan was just released yesterday from his stint in a federal prison. Another former governor, Rod Blagojevich is currently doing federal time for trying to sell the Senate seat of recently elected President Barack Obama (among other things). And it seems like someone may be sizing current Governor Pat Quinn for his own orange jumpsuit. He just got caught for filling the position of a high-ranking prison administrator job with a guy whose prior work experience was teaching theater, working as an assistant manager at a video store and managing an office for “his father’s campaign.” Yikes! Some might remember that suspicious hiring practices were what first got the attention of the Feds when Blagojevich was in office.

But, unfortunately, corruption in the Illinois governor’s office is nothing new. It’s been going on for years, dating back all of the way to the days of Al Capone and John Torrio, who had their own many in the governor’s mansion.

There have been six Illinois governors who have been charged with crimes during or after the time they were in office. Four were convicted, one got away with it and another… well, let’s just say that he had some help in convincing the jurors that he was not guilty.

Prior to George Ryan, the most recent governor to serve time was Dan Walker, the governor from 1973 to 1977. He was later involved in the Savings and loan scandals and convicted of federal crimes related to fraudulent loans to himself from his own First American Savings & Loan Association of Oak Brook. He was sentenced to seven years in prison with five years of probation following his release.

In 1965, Governor William Stratton, who served from 1953 to 1961 was acquitted of tax evasion. His successor, though, was not so lucky. Otto Jerner, Jr. was governor from 1961 to 1968 and he was later a judge on the United States States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In 1973, he was convicted of 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury, and income-tax charges from his time as governor. He received 3 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Ironically, he was prosecuted by future Illinois governor Jim Thompson – a friend of and attorney for later convicted Governor George Ryan.  

Even though he was never convicted, perhaps the most notoriously corrupt governor was Len Small, who served from 1921 to 1929. He was indicted in office for corruption and while he was acquitted, eight of the jurors in the trail later received state jobs. Among his defense lawyers was former governor Joseph W. Fifer, who asserted, in pre-trial hearings, that the Illinois governorship had the divine right of kings!

Famously a friend of Chicago mayor “Big Bill” Thompson (Al Capone’s favorite mayor), Small was born in Kankakee County, Illinois, and was educated in the public schools. He attended Northern Indiana Normal School, taught school and invested in real estate, eventually owning a farm, a bank, and Kankakee's daily newspaper. In 1883, Small married Ida Moore, and they had three children together.

Small began his political career in 1901 when he became a member of the Illinois Senate. He served in the Senate for the next four years and then became Illinois State Treasurer for 1905 to 1907, and again from 1917 to 1919. In between, he served as the assistant U.S. Treasurer in charge of the sub treasury at Chicago between 1908 and 1912.

Former Governor Len Small
In 1920, Small won the election for Governor of Illinois and was re-elected in 1925. As governor, Small pardoned 20 members of the Communist Labor Party convicted under the Illinois Sedition Act. He also pardoned or paroled over 1,000 convicted felons, including Edward “Spike” O’Donnell of the South Side O’Donnell Gang.

Another important pardon – repaying a favor to the Torrio Outfit – was the pardon of Harry Guzik (brother of Torrio / Capone money man Jake Guzik), who had been convicted of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into prostitution with a white slavery ring.

This was a favor repaid after Small was indicted while in office for embezzling $600,000 and running a money-laundering scheme when he was state treasurer. The Outfit would get him out of trouble – but they would need a favor in return.

In 1921, Torrio was moving in Chicago Heights, where he opened the Moonlight Café two thriving roadhouses in Burnham, the Coney Island Café and the Barn. In Posen, he established the Roamer Inn, under the management of Harry Guzik, one of three brothers who had been long entrenched in the rackets, and his wife, Alma.

John Torrio

The Roamer Inn became a strong test of Torrio’s political connections. The Guziks placed an advertisement for a housemaid and when a pretty, young farm girl applied, they stripped her naked, made her a prisoner and had her broken in as a prostitute. After five months in captivity, she managed to get word to her family. By the time that her brothers rescued her, she was a mental and physical wreck. In court, her father told how the Guziks had tried to bribe him not to testify. They were convicted and sentenced to hard time. While free on bail, pending an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, they came to Torrio for help. Torrio, in turn, approached Walter Stevens, one of the most respected gunmen in Chicago.

Stevens had been a lieutenant for Maurice “Mossy” Enright for many years and was considered a pioneer in labor union racketeering, slugging, bombing and killing during the industrial strife problems of the early 1900s. He was the last survivor of the Enright gang after Mossy himself was killed as a favor to rival labor racketeer Big Tim Murphy in 1920.

When Mossy Enright was killed in 1930, Stevens joined up with the Torrio-Capone gang. He had many contacts but perhaps his greatest was Illinois Len Small.  When Small was indicted, Stevens went to work. Working behind the scenes for the defense were Stevens, “Jew Ben” Newmark, a former investigator for the state’s attorney as well as a thief and extortionist, and Michael “Umbrella Mike” Boyle, a business agent for Electrical Workers’ Union No. 134. Boyle’s nickname came from his practice of standing at a kafe on certain days of the month with his umbrella partially open so that contractors who wanted to avoid union problems could drop off cash.

As the governor’s trial progressed, the three men kept busy bribing and intimidating jurors. Small was acquitted and he did not forget anyone who helped him. Eight of the men on his jury later received state jobs and Stevens and his cronies ran into other trouble. When they later went to jail – Newmark and Boyle for jury tampering and Stevens for an old murder – Small pardoned them. Stevens now drew Small’s attention to the Guziks’ unfortunate situation and before the Supreme Court could hand down its decision in their case, the governor pardoned them. Within three months, the Guziks were running a new brothel, the Marshfield Inn, just outside the Chicago’s southern limits.

Sadly, this sort of set the stage for how politics would always run in Illinois. There’s a reason why a long-time joke in Chicago has been “vote early, and vote often.” Corruption runs rampant in politics and based on the recent events that we’ve seen in the state’s highest office, it’s unlikely that things will change anytime soon. 


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