SPRINGFIELD – The second trial of Illinois’ 40th Governor Rod Blagojevich has cast the spotlight on legal troubles that have plagued the state’s chief executives in the past. A summary of the more notable examples follows, as compiled by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and relying for reference on The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent by the late Robert P. Howard, and revised and updated by Taylor Pensoneau and Peggy Boyer Long.
Joel Matteson, 10th Governor
Democrat, 1853 - 1857
The first legally embattled governor was Joel Aldrich Matteson, after whom the Village of Matteson in southern Cook County is named. During his term in 1856, he began redeeming outdated and/or previously redeemed canal scrip for state bonds. Matteson was discovered three years later, after his term as Governor was over. The subsequent court proceedings, including accusations of bribery and jury tampering, went on until 1863, when the Sangamon County Circuit Court declared Matteson owed the state more than $253,000. Matteson’s property was sold at auction to satisfy the judgment.
Len Small, 26th Governor
Republican, 1921 - 1929
Governor Len Small was indicted in 1921 on charges that he ran a money laundering scheme during his tenure as State Treasurer. He was acquitted amid rumors of jury tampering; in fact, after the trial, four jurors received state jobs. Later, in 1927, a civil suit was brought against Small for the same money laundering scheme. He lost that case, and the judgment was more than $1 million, an amount that was reduced to $650,000 by Attorney General Oscar Carlstrom, whom Small had helped to elect in 1924.
William G. Stratton, 32nd Governor
Republican, 1953 - 1961
William G. Stratton was indicted in 1964 on charges of violating income tax laws relating to political contributions during his term as Governor. He was acquitted during an expensive trial after defense witness Senator Everett M. Dirksen testified that governors have official ceremonial duties for which the unrestricted use of campaign fund contributions is justified. The U.S. Tax Court later agreed with the verdict, ruling that the Internal Revenue Service should not assess a tax on outright unrestricted gifts.
Otto Kerner, 33rd Governor
Democrat, 1961 – 1968
Otto Kerner was convicted in 1973 on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury and other charges relating to Illinois race track stock deals that occurred after his term in office. He was sentenced to three years in prison. The federal prosecutor in the case was James R. Thompson, who would later be elected Governor, and whose law firm would later defend another Illinois Governor, George H. Ryan.
Dan Walker, 36th Governor
Democrat, 1973 – 1977
Dan Walker was convicted and sent to prison in 1987, ten years after leaving office, for misusing funds from his failed First American Savings and Loan Association of Oak Brook. The conviction was unrelated to his service as Governor.
George Ryan, 39th Governor
Republican, 1999 - 2003
George Ryan is currently serving 6 ½ years in federal prison after he was convicted in 2006 by a federal jury of 18 counts of criminal misconduct, including a racketeering conspiracy, mostly related to his service as Illinois Secretary of State from 1990 to 1998.