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Chicago Sun-Times

Reforming Illinois: Who's listening in?
March 23, 2009

Not county prosecutor - yet Say you’re an ambitious county prosecutor who wants to stamp out political corruption. Say you’ve got solid evidence that a certain politician is a crook, but the only way to really get the goods on him is to listen in on his phone conversations – and you’ve exhausted every other investigative option. 

In Illinois, if you’re a county prosecutor, you simply can’t do it. You can’t wiretap the phone. State law doesn’t allow it. 

Federal law does, so federal prosecutors can do it, as they did in the case of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

In one of the more curious twists of Illinois law, county prosecutors are prevented or hamstrung in using listening devices to go after public corruption and other white-collar crimes. They have to jump through many more legal hoops that the feds for instance, if they want to put a wire on a snitch to record conversations with a bad guy – whether it’s a gang leader or a political boss. 

So many hoops, in fact, that using a wire is often all but impossible for county prosecutors.  We’re sure Illinois lawmakers did not do this on purpose, even if the effect is to make investigations of corrupt lawmakers enormously more difficult. 

Of course not. 

It’s just an oversight that Illinois has one of the worst laws in the country for local prosecutors when it comes to listening devices. 

So we’re sure the state Legislature will be eager to embrace a proposal by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and the chief of her special prosecutions bureau, John Blakey, that essentially would give county prosecutors the same leeway as federal prosecutors in using body wires and wiretaps.

The city’s inspector general, David Hoffman, also has called for changing the state law. 

To be clear, this is no incremental-compromising of civil liberties. We’re not talking about warrantless wiretaps. 

These are tools federal agents literally have been using every day, for decades, to bring down the bad guys – tools local prosecutors would have to abide by the same rules. 

Alvarez and Blakey also want to beef up the state’s racketeering law, making it similar to what the feds already have. 

The state’s racketeering law was designed solely to combat drug dealing – and was poorly designed at that. The federal racketeering law, on the other hand, is a great tool to go after criminal groups that engage in a wide variety of crimes, whether it’s the old Chicago Outfit or a gang that deals drugs, murders people and launders its money into legitimate investments. 

The Family Secrets mob case in federal court was a showcase for the effectiveness of the federal racketeering law. It made it possible for prosecutors to tell a sweeping story of Chicago mob murders over three decades, rather than put the defendants on trial in a piece-meal fashion that would obscure the scale of entire criminal enterprise. 

For years, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office has been criticized for going after only minor corruption – the small fry, the clout poor. 

With these powers, Cook County prosecutors, as well as local prosecutors throughout the state would be given great, effective tools. 

But they’d be losing something too. 

An excuse for not going after bigger game.