Licenses for Bribes: The Roots of Corruption, Closer to the Top

State Employees Get Prison Time for Political Fundraising

January, 2001

It's every parent's worst nightmare: driving with his family, the Rev. Duane Willis felt a bump, then heard a noise, and suddenly his van was engulfed in flames. A part had fallen off of a truck a short distance in front of Willis and become lodged in his van's gas tank. Six of his children were burned to death.

Public employees used bribe money to make political campaign contributions worth at least $170,000.

Even worse, the accident easily could have been avoided. The truck driver failed to heed warnings from other truckers that his tail assembly was loose. An investigation revealed that he should never have been issued a commercial driver's license (CDL) in the first place.

The investigation also uncovered rampant political corruption in the state agency that licenses truck drivers. In offices all over the state, employees came to believe that their careers, evaluations, promotions, and pay increases all depended on their ability to raise campaign contributions for their political patron, then-Secretary of State George Ryan. [1]

The drive to raise political contributions, to buy tickets to fund-raising events, led Department of Motor Vehicles employees all over Illinois to take bribes from applicants and from owners of driving schools, according to federal indictments. Over 690 truck drivers and 470 passenger car drivers were licensed as a result of the scheme. Later media investigations linked these drivers to at least 59 accidents and at least 9 deaths. [2]

All told, federal officials claim, over $170,000 in bribes paid by unqualified drivers wound up in George Ryan's campaign coffers. [3]

The CDL investigation raises the specter of state employees using taxpayer resources to support a partisan candidate for office. The scandal cheats voters of a fair choice by giving certain candidates an improper edge; it also cheats taxpayers of public servants' time and energies. To date, 38 people have been indicted. Thirty-five have been convicted, and three trials are pending.

Former Inspector General Dean Bauer is the most recent Secretary of State employee to plead guilty. Though the top law enforcement officer in George Ryan's Secretary of State office, Bauer admitted to impeding investigation, to covering up evidence that he obstructed efforts to weed out corruption. Prosecutors also alleged that Bauer took $2,500 in cash and 64 fundraising tickets from the evidence locker.

Dozens of truckers who allegedly bribed their way past the licensing exam later exchanged their Illinois licenses for licenses in other states. Illinois-licensed truckers later turned up licensed in as many as 14 other states. The Illinois Secretary of State's office has now contacted all 50 states, as well as 14 Canadian provinces, to warn them about the scandal. [4]

After a federal investigation found that private passenger vehicle drivers were also licensed as the result of bribes, the Secretary of State ordered them back for re-tests. Of the 470 drivers who were improperly licensed, 393 lost their licenses – an astonishing 81% failure rate for drivers who had been on the road for a year or more. Media reports indicate that some of these drivers ignored red lights, drove the wrong way down one-way streets, backed out of alleys despite the presence of pedestrians, and committed a variety of other serious offenses. [5]

Many of the Secretary of State employees involved in the scandal kept careful notes. They were not tracking accidents, injuries or deaths caused by the drivers they had illegally licensed. They tracked how much they had collected in bribes. And how much they had contributed to politicians' campaign war chests.

Illinois has a sad but well-documented history of using public employees for political gain. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Illinois could not premise employment decisions – to hire, promote, transfer or recall from a layoff – on employees' political allegiances. [6] The CDL scandal shows that current state employees remain fearful of such retaliation – and that such fears breed new forms of political discrimination.


[1] U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Evaluating Vulnerabilities: Commercial Driver's License Program (October, 2000)
[2] U.S. Department of Transportation
[3] Bernard Schoenburg, “Two indicted in license scandal”, State Journal-Register, 6/23/2000
[4] Telephonic interview with Donna Leonard, Executive Counsel, Illinois Secretary of State, 11/ 17/2000.
[5] Cam Simpson, “Drivers take test again”, Chicago Tribune, 10/3/2000; Chicago Sun-Times, 11/7/2000.
[6] Rutan v Republican Party of Illinois, 497 US 62 (1990)

Related Links: