Governors love jail; they just can’t stay away. Ask Illinois. Four of their last seven governors have gone to jail. The only thing more reliable than Illinois governors in jail is how zany some of these stories get. From accusations of Karl Rove orchestrating a political imprisonment to Pres. Bill Clinton pardoning a man who once saved his life, the stories behind how these powerful politicians went to jail or avoided it run a dramatic gamut that would make Game of Thrones blush.
The most recent case involves Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). He treated his office as if it had a swinging door. He and wife Maureen McDonnell were convicted of 11 counts of corruption after accepting $177,000 in gifts, vacations, and loans. The McDonnells exchanged government favors for these bribes. All that, and the sentence amounts to just two years in prison for him, and a year and a day for her.
Gov. John G. Rowland (R) of Connecticut resigned in 2004 during a corruption investigation. After pleading guilty to accepting bribes from state contractors, he served just 10 months in federal prison and four months house arrest. Now, he faces another 30 months in jail after consulting for Republican congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley in 2012. Not wanting his name on her payroll, she laundered money through a nursing home chain to pay him. It’s OK, though; 1980s singer Michael Bolton has written a letter to the judge on Rowland’s behalf. Maybe Bolton just feels nostalgic because Rowland’s first (relatively minor) ethics violation came when he accepted free tickets to a Bolton concert.
That’s just the small stuff.
Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) was convicted of extortion, mail fraud, and money laundering, but don’t worry. After an eight year stint in prison, he starred in his own reality show, The Governor’s Wife. It was not his first time on-screen, however. While governor, in 1975, he filmed scenes in blaxploitation film Mandingo. When the nature of the film was revealed, his campaign successfully requested the scenes be deleted.
In 1997, Arizona Gov. Fife Symington III (R) was convicted of defrauding his lenders during his time as a real estate developer. He was also convicted of extorting a pension fund and perjuring himself in bankruptcy court. The conviction was later overturned in 1999 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Despite being bitter political enemies during the government shutdown of 1995, President Bill Clinton then pardoned Symington before a retrial could take place. The truth gets even stranger. As college students in the 60s, Symington once saved Bill Clinton’s life. He pulled Clinton out of a rip tide and swam them both to shore during a Massachusetts beach party. Talk about a Get Out of Jail Free card.
In 1996, Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) was convicted of fraud and conspiracy during the Whitewater investigation. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but this was changed to probation after a transplant surgeon testified Tucker could not serve his sentence. Tucker would be dead of liver disease within those four years, the surgeon testified. Tucker is still alive today.
It’s all still small potatoes when you compare this to Illinois.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was convicted of 17 counts of fraud in 2011 after he tried to auction off the State Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama became a U.S. Senator. Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Initially, Blagojevich refused to leave office, rare for a Governor under criminal investigation, and it took a 59-0 vote of the Illinois Senate to impeach and remove him.
Blagojevich wasn’t alone. Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) was convicted of 18 counts of corruption and racketeering during his time as governor and Secretary of State. He was involved in the illegal sale of licenses and contracts relating to trucking operations. He may’ve gotten away with it, too, until a piece of a truck came loose in Wisconsin, causing a van to crash. That crash killed six children, and the federal investigation resulted in Ryan’s conviction. He ultimately served only five years.
Before him, Illinois Gov. Dan Walker (D) pleaded guilty to bank fraud. He borrowed money out of the loans his bank gave out. He spent 18 months in prison out of the seven years he was initially sentenced to. Why? His ailing health and imminent death were cited as reasons for his early release in 1989. He passed away early in 2015.
Before him, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner (D) was convicted of taking bribes and was sentenced to three years in jail. He had taken bribes in the form of stock in order to give two race tracks preferable racing dates. Kerner was prosecuted by future Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson (R), who somehow managed the incredible feat of both governing Illinois and not going to jail.
Of course, sometimes convictions aren’t as serious. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) was convicted on four misdemeanor ethics violations. He was fined $4,000 and ordered to apologize to Ohio constituents. Misdemeanors? Apologies? That’s the difference between Ohio and Illinois.
One of the most interesting cases came from a candidate who never became governor. Jon Grunseth (R) was a leading candidate for Governor of Minnesota in 1990. During his run, two women came forward to describe how he had skinny dipped naked with his underage, adopted daughter at a 1981 party. According to the women, aged 13 and 12 at the time of the party, they had refused to join Grunseth and he attempted to tear their clothes off. The accusations divided Republicans over whether to replace him; eventually Grunseth dropped out when information about a 1989 affair came out.
Then there’s the case of a potential political imprisonment. Gov. Don Siegelman (D) of Alabama was sentenced to 88 months for bribery, mail fraud, and obstruction of justice, but members of both parties have asked Congress to take a look at the prosecution of Siegelman. This includes 52 former state attorneys general. The consensus seems to be Siegelman was targeted because he was a successful Democrat in a tremendously Republican state. The case is so strange Siegelman was manacled in the courtroom as if he were a violent offender. Pres. George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove was key to the entire pursuit of Siegelman, and Rove has since refused to testify before Congress despite being ordered to do so under subpoena. Similarly, the Justice Department has refused to turn over thousands of pages of documentation on the case.
This is not a complete history, and governors (and other politicians) continue to be investigated and arrested on a regular basis. Missouri Gov. Roger B. Wilson (D), Rhode Island Gov. Daniel DiPrete (R), West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore (R)…the list goes on and on.
Appreciate your governors, folks. They may not be in office for long.