What were they thinking?

Two stories in the Chicago press today had me scratching my head with wonder. Why is clean government so baffling to people in power?

The Tribune reports on city aldermen who think Patrick Fitzgerald has gone too far in enforcing rules against political patronage. The rights of public servants to their own political affiliations are well-settled, but in Illinois, it seems that prosecutors have to swoop in every few years to remind our public officials what the rest of the nation learned over a century ago. Politicians cannot hand out jobs to supporters. Hiring, firing, promotions, contracts, and other benefits should not be doled out based on campaign considerations. Taxpayer funds should benefit taxpayers. And yet, one unnamed alderman insists, “nobody has considered it a crime before.” Maybe nobody at City Hall, but surely after Rutan, and Shakman, and (gulp) the 2003 Ethics Act, we’d have hoped they’d have learned differently.

The Sun-Times has another doozy, revealing that Gov. Blagojevich was maintaining a favors list that connected new hires with political sponsors. At the same time that the governor was bragging about changing the way business was done, insisting that other politicians fought with him because he was reforming the system, it turns out his office was also tracking special interest sponsors of state employees. Maybe the governor now wants to explain why he let a riverboat casino lobbyist pick the Gaming Board’s lobbyist? Was that the new and improved way of doing the people’s business?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Scott Fawell was indicted (and convicted) of abuse of public office for acts he committed after he knew he was a target in the Safe Roads investigation, and some Hired Truck defendants were charged with crimes committed after the first Hired Truck indictments came down. Some people just think they’re immune; even when they know prosecutors are looking at them, they keep on breaking the law. But our public officials are lucky, in a way. If they haven’t learned the lesson yet, the latest round of federal prosecutions will give them all another chance to get it right.