It seems everywhere I’ve traveled around Southern Illinois the past week, the conversation at some point has turned to the current mess in Cairo – highlighted in a story, “Chaos in Cairo” that appeared in this newspaper on Aug. 23.
The well-written investigative report by reporter Molly Parker detailed the latest shenanigans that are taking place in the small Alexander County community. The newest scandal involves an investigation of the Alexander County Housing Authority. The allegations center on misappropriated federal funds by housing authority employees while residents in Cairo public housing developments are living in substandard conditions and squalor.
The story has all the ingredients that we’ve come to expect in Illinois: generous bonuses, excessive pay, no accountability, sweetheart deals and golden parachute retirement packages. In short, the fattest pig gets the best spot at the government feeding trough.
The reason I used the phrases ‘current mess, ’‘newest scandal’ and ‘latest shenanigans’ is because this is nothing new in Cairo. It’s been said that there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. Well, let’s add one more to that list – chaos in Cairo.
Back in 2001, I was working as a reporter with The Southern Illinoisan and I was given the assignment to cover a trial in Cairo at the Alexander County Courthouse. During the 2000 primary election in Alexander County, allegations of vote fraud and vote buying surfaced. Among other races, the election featured a heated battle between incumbent Circuit Clerk Susan Hileman who was being challenged by Sharon McGinness.
Hileman lost by only 200 votes to McGinness but claimed that vote buying swayed the outcome. In all, more than 800 absentee votes were cast, which is more than three times the normal total. Hileman filed suit asking for a new election. Alexander County Judge John Speroni agreed and ordered the election invalid and ruled a new election must be held.
McGinness appealed to the 5th District Appellate Court, which then sent the case back to Judge Speroni for an evidentiary hearing to determine if fraud had taken place. I had a ringside seat as Speroni presided over the three-day bench trial.
During the trial, I watched and listened in amazement as more than a dozen witnesses testified that they were paid $3 each, and in some instances were given a pack of cigarettes or half-pint of whiskey, to cast votes for specific candidates. Several courthouse employees testified that they watched prospective voters gather in a parking lot adjacent to the courthouse where they were given slips of paper telling them how to vote. After voting, they returned to the parking lot and were paid.
Perhaps even more telling than the vote-buying scheme in Alexander County, was testimony during the trial about political slush funds funneled through a Cairo union hall, voter intimidation by felons and reports of rampant absentee voting fraud. Every day when I left the courthouse, I felt like I needed a shower to wash away the stench of corruption.
I recall one Cairo woman testifying that an elected county official told her that a dozen blank absentee ballots would be mailed to her house and that an individual would pick them up at a later date, which she said happened.
The kicker to this story didn’t take place until after Judge Speroni, who is a good and decent man, ruled that McGinness must vacate the seat. Unbelievably, the Alexander County Democrat Central Committee thumbed its nose at Speroni’s decision and one week later appointed McGinness back to the position the veteran judge had removed her from after he determined that sworn testimony proved that vote fraud had taken place.
Perhaps more unbelievable is the fact that the attorney general, state board of elections and the state police all investigated the 2000 primary election and still nothing happened. No indictments, no arrests, nothing.
With racial unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities during the past year, the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ has surfaced as a national battle cry. Apparently, that slogan does not hold true in Cairo where blacks have been used as a voting block by Democrats and union bosses.
It seems from what’s being alleged in Cairo these days we can surmise that nothing has changed in the past 15 years – for that matter, the last 50 years. I expect absolutely nothing, zero, zilch from state lawmakers or officials regarding the housing authority because they’re part of the problem. So, unless the feds investigate, the latest allegations involving the housing authority will also quietly go away and the chaos will continue in Cairo.