First Illinois governor to do time was known as 'Mr. Clean'

PoliticsElectionsJustice SystemCrime, Law and JusticeDiseases and IllnessesOtto Kerner

A former Illinois governor was sentenced to prison last week. That's about a once-a-decade event here since the 1970s.

Flashback readers know that Illinois' culture of corruption began long before that, notably with Gov. Len Small in the 1920s, but the convictions are a more recent turn of events.

Otto Kerner, our first convicted governor, had a gold-standard political resume. Educated at Brown, Cambridge and Northwestern universities, he was the son of a former Illinois attorney general and federal judge. He served with distinction during World War II, and rose to the rank of major general in the Illinois National Guard. He married Helena Cermak, daughter of the late Chicago mayor. He served as U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois and as a Cook County judge.

That got him elected governor in 1960, unseating two-term Republican Gov. William Stratton, and narrowly re-elected in 1964 against Charles Percy.

In February 1968, he announced he wouldn't seek a third term so that he could spend more time with his wife, whose health was failing. Almost exactly a month later, President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago. He left office early to take up the judicial post in May 1968.

But on Dec. 16, 1971, the Tribune reported that then-U.S. Attorney James Thompson was indicting Kerner and four others as part of a widening racetrack stock scandal. Kerner was accused of secretly buying stock in 1966 in the Arlington Park and Washingon Park horseracing tracks. The former governor, who was known as Mr. Clean, got the stock at a steep discount in exchange for political favors.

Kerner was found guilty in February 1973 of bribery, conspiracy and income tax evasion. Kerner, who was the first sitting U.S. appellate judge to be convicted in the nation's history, also perjured himself before a federal grand jury.

For his part, Kerner denied any wrongdoing. "I have been in many battles in my life where life itself was at stake," said the former soldier. "This battle is even more important … because it involves my reputation and honor, which are dearer than life itself, and I intend to continue this battle."

Kerner was sentenced on April 19, 1973, to three years in prison. At the sentencing hearing, Kerner was unrepentant. "I shall always be satisfied that my conscience and my record of loyal and dedicated service as governor of this state were never tarnished or my integrity bought," he said.

The Tribune reported that Thompson did not request a specific sentence but did want jail time to provide a deterrent against future public corruption.

Kerner didn't go to prison until July 29, 1974, because of appeals, and it was barely more than six months later that Thompson was seeking parole for the jailed ex-governor.

Thompson gave four reasons in arguing for parole: The conviction itself represented a stiff punishment because of the "stain" upon Kerner's reputation, Kerner's health wasn't great, the court had been easy on others in similar cases, and time already served "has had sufficient impact upon the community at large to achieve any level of deterrence which might reasonably be expected."

Kerner was freed on parole March 6, 1975. He went straight from prison to the hospital, where he was diagnosed and treated for lung cancer.

Once out of the hospital, the former governor and federal judge remained defiant, very publicly crusading for prison reforms and to clear his name. He was seeking a presidential pardon when he died on May 9, 1976.

sbenzkofer@tribune.com

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