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Prison, indictment no bar to victory in Illinois primary: experts

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - In the Illinois primary elections on Tuesday, candidates on Chicago's Democratic ballot will include someone who served a prison term for bribery, another who is due to go on trial on bribery charges this spring and a third charged with bank fraud.

"It's a terrible indictment" of the local political culture, said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who teaches at University of Illinois at Chicago. "There is still a patronage-based political army on the West Side of Chicago."

Political experts say all three candidates are either guaranteed victory or heavily favored to win.

The candidates include Isaac "Ike" Carothers, a former Chicago alderman who was sentenced to 28 months for bribery and tax fraud, and is now running for commissioner of the Cook County Board. He was released from prison in late 2011.

Derrick Smith, a state representative, was expelled by the Illinois House in 2012 after he was charged with taking a $7,000 bribe, but then won his seat back and is now running for re-election. His trial date has been set for the spring.

A third candidate, state Representative La Shawn K. Ford, has been charged with bank fraud for alleged actions before he was elected a legislator in 2006. He is running unopposed in his primary.

Smith and Ford have pleaded not guilty. Carothers, whose conviction bars him from running again for his old job of alderman, said he is running for county commissioner because he wants to continue in public service.

"I believe in a God that believes in second chances and I hope that the voters in this district will give me a second chance," Carothers said in a televised interview in December.

Also going before voters in Tuesday's primary are the Republican candidates vying to take on Governor Pat Quinn in the November election. In 2009, Quinn replaced fellow Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who was removed from office and is serving a 14-year sentence for political corruption.

Businessman Bruce Rauner, who has pumped $6 million of his own money into the race so far, is leading the crowded Republican field.

PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE

Corruption is nothing new in Illinois.

Blagojevich's predecessor, Republican George Ryan, was convicted of racketeering and served five years in federal prison.

Chicago, the state's largest city, ranked first in the nation in public corruption over the past three decades and has had 1,531 public corruption convictions since 1976, according to a 2012 analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

Candidates with criminal backgrounds and ethical problems typically do not have a strong track record of winning in the state.

Last year, former U.S. Representative Mel Reynolds, who had been convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker, lost a bid for the U.S. House seat of Jesse Jackson Jr., who had resigned before pleading guilty to fraud charges.

Carothers' father, former Chicago alderman William Carothers, also went to prison for corruption.

Ahead of Tuesday's vote, both Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle have urged voters not to back the younger Carothers. They have endorsed another candidate, attorney Blake Sercye.

But both Smith and Ford have the backing of powerful state House Speaker Michael Madigan.

"We're backing the incumbents," said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown, adding that both Smith and Ford should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

"That's how America works," he said.

(Editing by Edith Honan and Mohammad Zargham)

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