Otto Kerner had bad luck at the racetrack.
Kerner, who was governor of Illinois from 1961 to 1968, seemed like the perfect politician. His father had been attorney general of Illinois. His father-in-law was Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, founder of the city’s Democratic Machine. Handsome, with a full head of wavy hair, Kerner earned a degree from Brown University and a Bronze Star in World War II.
When President Lyndon Johnson was looking for someone to lead an investigation into the urban riots of the 1960s, he chose Kerner. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders is best known as the Kerner Commission, and best remembered for the conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal.”
While Kerner was serving on this blue-ribbon panel, he was also buying stock in Arlington Park racetrack at a deep discount. In exchange, he made sure the track got favorable racing dates, and two highway exits located for the convenience of horseplayers.
Kerner left office in 1968, to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago. The next year, his corruption came to light when Marge Everett, Arlington Park’s manager, listed the bribe she paid to Kerner on her taxes. Everett assumed that graft was the cost of doing business in Illinois.
Kerner, who had been known during his governorship as “Mr. Clean,” was indicted by U.S. Attorney James Thompson, and convicted of bribery, conspiracy and income tax evasion.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bob Greene witnessed Kerner’s reaction to his conviction.
“For Kerner,” Greene wrote, “a guilty verdict could mean the utter, heart-stabbing ruin of a life filled with words of praise and official certifications of honor. He does not look like a man who is afraid. He looks like he is posing for the engraved portrait on a $100 bill.”
When the judge announced he had been found guilty, though, Kerner had “to bite down on his lips to start the trembling.”
Kerner never admitted his guilt.
“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 at his sentencing hearing.
Kerner was sentenced to three years in prison, but served only six months. He was released early to be treated for the lung cancer that killed him in 1976 -- the same year his prosecutor, Jim Thompson, was elected governor.
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