CHARLESTON, Ill. — Federal Judge James Zagel was a key character in the most recent chapter of Illinois' long history of official corruption but says he doesn't believe the public has entirely lost faith in government.
Zagel told a crowd of mostly students Thursday at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston that what he called the point of disaster would be reached when so many people believe government to be corrupt that too many simply withdraw from public life altogether. Or, he said, when so many people assume the process to be so dirty that rather than complain about the problem they simply wonder, "Where's my piece of the deal?"
"That will be the worst day for America, when the national slogan becomes, 'Where's mine?'" he said.
But Zagel said he doesn't believe the country — or Illinois — is at that point.
"I don't know if Illinois is in a good place, it's (just) not in the worst place," he said.
In an hourlong speech and 20 minutes of questions that followed Zagel never mentioned Rod Blagojevich by name. The judge opened his talk by saying he wouldn't discuss "recent events," and declined to answer a handful of questions from reporters about the trial and sentencing of the former governor.
Blagojevich was convicted last year during a retrial of 18 corruption-related counts, including his effort to try to sell or trade the Senate seat vacated by the election of President Barack Obama.
Zagel presided over both Blagojevich trials, and earlier this year sentenced him to 14 years in prison. Blagojevich attorneys have said they will appeal both the convictions and the sentence.
Zagel focused much of his discussion on Illinois' history of corruption and why he believes it exists.
The state, he said, was founded with few resources of its own — much of its land base was owned by the federal government — and found itself beholden to both Washington and anyone who could help develop it, such as a railroad-builder.
As money poured in, he said, that changed, and the influence of lobbyists and special interests grew, along with corruption.
But political and governmental processes don't have to be terribly corrupt for the public trust to be damaged. The public just has to believe that some significant piece of public life is corrupt.
"If it is perceived, rightly or wrongly, that breach of trust (is common), the consequences for public trust are going to be grave," he said.