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Lord Jim

Upon the death of Jim Thompson on Friday, I decided to dig out the profile I wrote about him and his post-governship for Chicago magazine in 2000. Because it's not online, I had to retype it here and take camera photos of the art. (Original photography by Tom Maday.) Enjoy!


Once thought to be Presidential timber, former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson instead has struck it rich as a power lawyer, ubiquitous board members, and big-gun-for-hire lobbyist. Although he hasn't held public office since 1991, he now wields more clout than any other Chicagoan not named Daley.

One day last December, 31 Chicago power brokers gathered in the grand oval lobby of the Old Courthouse Building in River North. It was a uniquely broad coalition of politicians and legal luminaries - a prime selection of clout rallying to the cause of Cook County Criminal Courts judge Thomas Fitzgerald, who was running for the Illinois Supreme Court. Among those standing behind Fitzgerald on a three-tiered riser were former Cook County assessor Thomas Hynes, civil rights lawyer James Montgomery, Democratic grand dame Dawn Clark Netsch, and author Scott Turow. It was a formidable cast for any occasion.

But one man, planted in front and just a shade off center - visible behind the left shoulder of each person who stepped up to speak - towered above the rest, and not just because of his six-foot-six frame. Big Jim Thompson, the swashbuckling four-term Republican governor who left office in 1991, was mentioned in the official remarks that day almost as often as Fitzgerald.

Netsch, who had known Thompson for three decades, drew the honor of introducing him. She pretended she didn't know who he was. Reading from note cards, she joked, "Let's see, it says here he was governor. U.S. Attorney. Statesman. Statesman?

The crowd laughed, but in fact she had a point. Once talked about seriously as Presidential material, Thompson had not exactly spent his post-government years on statecraft, something he seemed to acknowledge. "C'mon, say it, say it," Thompson good-naturedly pleaded. "In my next campaign, I'm going to say, 'Dawn Clark Netsch called me a statesman."

Thompson can afford to roll with the joke. Sure, he hasn't become President. And he hasn't ascended to the role of political wise elder, like former U.S. senator Paul Simon, or even Thompson's successor, Jim Edgar. Both of those men hold dignified academic post. Instead, Thompson has gotten rich.


Big Jim spent the nineties as a man of supreme influence. In his day job, he is chairman of Winston & Strawn, the politically connected blue-chip law firm. And with Thompson at the helm, Winston & Strawn has grown tremendously in size and revenues. But Thompson's true life's work may simply be this: being in on the action. He sits on ten corporate boards. He sits on nine civic boards. He has doled out more than $1 million in campaign contributions since leaving the governor's office. The state and federal judiciaries are stuffed with his old friends and former colleagues. He counts Governor George Ryan (once Thompson's lieutenant governor), state senate president James "Pate" Philip, and state house minority leader Led Daniels as "exceedingly good friends." His ties to Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, go back to Hastert's first political campaign in 1980.

Thompson is also a go-to lawyer of the power set, though his client list reads in part like a cast of public villains, from state supreme court justice James Heiple, to ComEd, to liquor kingpin William Wirtz. When George Ryan, as a sitting governor, needed a lawyer to defend him in two lawsuits arising from the driver's licenses-for-bribes scandal, he called Thompson.

The former governor leaves virtually no public or private arena of note untouched. He's even involved in Big Labor, as chairman of the Public Review Board overseeing the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, formerly run by a friend and political supporter, the late Edward Hanley. Hanley was forced out after a federal corruption investigation uncovered irregularities in his administration of union funds.

The Thompson network is hot-wired. It's hard to think of anyone in Chicago outside of Mayor Richard M. Daley with more juice. "Thompson was governor for 14 years," says Pual Green, director of the School of Policy Studies at Roosevelt University. "He not only knows where the bones are buried; he probably buried some of them."

Thompson, of course, protests any suggestion that he belongs at or near the top of any list of power brokers. "I'm way down on the list," he insists. "I hold no office; I don't have any patronage; I'm not governor; I don't have any power. Influence is overrated."

That from a man who has made influence his calling card (and whose pull is such that the license plate on his 1991 Mercedes reads simply "8").

"He's always had connections," says Robert E. Hartley, author of the 1979 biography Big Jim Thompson of Illinois. "He's always been at the center of things. He's always had his minions at work. But I never thought of Jim Thompson as a sinister figure. Intriguing, but never sinister. He did a lot of things that other people wouldn't do, and essentially he got away with it. It all sort of tumbled in his direction."


The view from Thompson's 46th-floor corner office in the Leo Burnett Building, where Winston & Strawn's world headquarters occupies the top 12 floors, is almost as compelling as the artwork on his walls - mostly 20th-century decorative pieces by local artists. Looking east, Thompson takes in Navy Pier and notes he attended college there when the University of Illinois at Chicago was the University of Illinois at Navy Pier. As governor, he remembers, he delivered $150 million to Chicago's new mayor, Richard M. Daley, to revive the pier and turn it into the tourist magnet that it is today.

Thompson - no matter what you think of him, it's hard to resist calling him Big Jim - likes to reminisce about projects like that. In a conversation focused on his most recent accomplishments, the words he repeated most frequently were "When I was governor. . . . " And nearly every sight outside his windows and every memento inside the office seem to kindle another memory of those days of living large, when the mansion in Springfield was party central and he once sat astride a horse at the capitol.

Thompson has rushed back to his office on this day, the day before New Year's Eve, and he's a little late and a little frazzled, despite his pre-holiday casual attire. He tells of getting caught in the mad millennial rush of North Michigan Avenue shoppers, as if he is not used to mingling with the masses. And yet, Thompson is affable and relaxed. He does not smell of money, though his hourly rate is $550. He still has a slight awkwardness that belies his almost bottomless reservoir of charm. His blue jeans are too blue and out of style. The color scheme of his sweater resembles fruit salad mush. He puts his brown loafers on the coffee table; his feet are huge. His hair is graying at the temples, but his laugh is still hearty - sudden, loud, and barking, in contrast to his soothing, calm speaking voice. He laughs a lot. His life has been charmed.

James Robert Thompson, now 63, grew up in Garfield Park. His father was a doctor who worked in a tuberculosis lab by day and made house calls at night. His mother largely raised the three Thompson boys and their sister. Jim's ties to his family were so strong that when they moved to St. Louis for a year he transferred to Washington University there, returning to attend law school at Northwestern when his family moved back to Chicago. His résumé since then is a slice of Illinois history - falling under the spell of conservative legal theorist Fred Inbau; prosecuting obscenity cases, including Lenny Bruce's appeal, while working in the Cook County state's attorney's office; winning a conviction against the Chicago Seven on contempt of court charges (a victory that proved Pyrrhic when the judge refused to enter a sentence); and eventually becoming a self-styled corruption-busting U.S. attorney, putting two prominent Democrats - former governor Otto Kerner and Chicago alderman Thomas Kean, Mayor Richard J. Daley's floor leader and City Council finance chairman - behind bars.

Thompson rode the acclaim to election in 1976, although he found Springfield too sleepy for his appetites. Instead, he largely led the state from his Chicago office, careening from crisis to crisis, spreading the pork far and wide, leaving legacies good (the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency), bad (Comiskey Park), and ugly (the state of Illinois building in the Loop that now bears his name).

He's happy to talk about it all, but ask him what accomplishment he is most proud of since leaving the governorship, and you get an uncharacteristically long silence. His head appears to tighten with the strain of the search. "It's hard to pick one thing," he finally says. "I'll have to think about that." (A month later, when I ask him again, he says, simply, "Building this law firm.")

Perhaps that suggests some ambivalence about his current work. After all, when I met with him in his office he had just wrapped up a remarkably successful legislative session in a new role - superlobbyist - representing clients like ComEd and Blackhawks owner and liquor distributor William Wirtz. But he still sees the world through the eyes of a governor. Only minutes into our conversation, he mentions George Ryan's embarrassing standoff against Philip over a gun control provision in a proposed second version of the Safe Neighborhoods Act. "We would have had a compromise," Thompson says, remarking on his own ability to work with Philip when he was governor. "It never would have gotten this far." Philip, in a later interview, agreed.

But Thompson is no longer governor, and though he has a lot of business in Springfield, the Safe Neighborhoods Act is not the sort of project he now takes on: There was no corporate client to pay the freight. "I don't think Jim Thompson, when he was governor, ever positioned himself to be an elder statesman when he left office," says Jim Howard, executive director of Illinois Common Cause. "As a governor, he positioned himself to become a lobbyist on his issues. His style as a governor was as lead lobbyist. What he's doing now it's a big change, except that he's not the governor. He's ended up as that which he always was. He's the consummate lobbyist."

And that makes some people wonder: Is this any way for an ex-governor to act?

bigjimnetwork.jpg(ENLARGE, then click on the image anywhere you'd like and use your sliders to move around the graphic.)

When Thompson declined to run for a fifth term and left the governor's office in January 1991, people still speculated that one day he would try for national office. But the window on a Presidential ticket had closed. Thompson, the tried-and-true moderate, had not foreseen the rise of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party's right wing. "He has no party," says Paul Green. "He can't run as a Democrat because he's a Republican. And he can't run as a Republican because he's a moderate." He reportedly was on George Bush's short list for Vice-President in 1988, but Bush chose Dan Quayle. It was time for the private sector.

Thompson's casual style - he made a virtue of campaigning in jeans and T-shirts - may have seemed like an odd fit for an old-line, button-down law firm like Winston & Strawn, but his sharp legal mind and his ability to attract top-dollar clients quickly swept him into the chairman's office.

The timing wasn't great. Like many other law firms, Winston & Strawn was in a period of retrenchment. Between 1991 and 1994, the firm laid off 44 partners and associates. Then managing partner Gary Lee Fairchild humiliated the firm and was forced out for embezzling more than $784,000 in a scheme involving false expense reports. He pleaded guilty to federal charges of fraud and income tax evasion and spent 21 months in prison. (The Fairchild saga presented a typically complex Thompson web: Thomas Reynolds Jr., president of Thompson's political fund and his predecessor as Winston & Strawn's chairman, had brought Fairchild to the firm, and Anton Valukas Jr., a Thompson protégé who followed him as U.S. attorney, defended Fairchild in court.)

As chairman, Thompson led Winston & Strawn's comeback. He reformed the firm's management structure along the lines of a corporate model, making the new managing partner, James Neis, the chief operating officer responsible for internal administration and taking for himself the more visible role of chief executive officer. Today, Winston & Strawn is larger (655 lawyers) and more lucrative (more than $280 million in revenues for 1998) than ever. The firm grew more than 13 percent last year, and each of its 269 partners generated an average $710,000 in profits, according to, a business research Web site. Thompson spent much of the last year opening the firm's sixth office, in Los Angeles. He personally helped make the hires - an art he perfected in his U.S. attorney days. "The best talent I've ever had is choosing good people," he says.

Thompson has also restocked the firm's legislative units in Springfield and Washington, D.C., breathing new life into the firm's lobbying and regulatory work, which steers clients through the thickets of governmental bureaucracy. (Winston & Strawn also has won more than $1 million in state contracts since Ryan became governor.) Thompson hired a crew of aggressive young lawyers and eventually returned to Springfield himself to rejoin the game. "I kinda missed the action, I guess," Thompson says. "It's fun being back."

And while he doesn't spend much time in the courtroom anymore, he can still occasionally be found arguing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. "He's a working lawyer," says Neis. "He's not just a hood ornament around here."

Thompson's triumphant return to Springfield began in 1997 when he defended Justice Heiple in impeachment proceedings before an Illinois House panel. At the time, Heiple was likely the most unpopular public figure in Illinois. His ruling in the Baby Richard custody case was so widely despised that he became a national symbol for out-of-touch jurists. Then he was accused of trying to use his position to avoid traffic tickets and to influence a subsequent investigation. Even Governor Jim Edgar, a fellow Republican, spoke out against him.

But Thompson had at least as much goodwill stored up as Heiple had bad. Big Jim was back, hailed by legislators as a returning hero, backslaps and war stories about the good old days echoing through the capitol. His first order of business was to meet with senate president Pate Philip, in what the Chicago Tribune's veteran Springfield reporter Rick Pearson called "a situation akin to having a defense attorney meet with a judge before an indictment has been issued."

The notion that a law firm chairman would defend a sitting chief justice of the state supreme court - where seven pending cases were being handled by Winston & Strawn lawyers - was unsettling to some people. Also unsettling was the fact that a former governor was arguing before a panel containing some of the very legislators with whom he had worked for many years. Still, even Frank J. McGarr, a former federal judge who, as the House panel's special counsel, led the case against Heiple, praises Thompson's defense to this day. But, of course, McGarr has known Thompson a long time: He was the first assistant to state attorney general William Scott in 1969, when Thompson headed Scott's criminal division.

Clearly, Thompson's return to his old political arena creates plenty of questionable appearances. A walking conflict of interest, some call him. But among Thompson's dealings in Springfield, only his defense of Heiple gives Netsch pause. "Heiple had a right to an attorney, but that was potentially unseemly," she says.

Of course, in the end Thompson was his usual persuasive self. He didn't waste time defending Heiple on the facts. Instead, he cut to the argument that the allegations, even if true, weren't serious enough to warrant impeachment. He won easily, though Heiple later stepped down as chief justice.

Later that year, Thompson returned to Springfield to represent ComEd in a complicated and controversial deregulation bill. "He played a pivotal role in bringing the parties together at the end to make the bill float," says, Martin Cohen, executive director fo the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer watchdog that supported the final version of the bill.

During the negotiations, Thompson displayed a mastery of detail and argument, says Senator Kirk Dillard, a Republican (and, for five years, Thompson's legislative affairs director): "He really does sell the product. He doesn't just walk in a room." And even though Thompson's client was ComEd, says Cohen, he helped craft a bill beneficial to a number of interests - which didn't please all the players. "He ruffled some feathers," Cohen says, "His role was similar to his role of governor - something that could have been played by Jim Edgar, who was the governor at the time."

It was the Thompson philosophy at work. "Nobody wins or loses absolutely in politics, except on election day," he says. "You're gonna have to deal with Republicans and Democrats. You've got to find common ground with constituent groups. You're always campaigning one way or another to achieve an end."

Thompson continues to represent ComEd, which was a stalwart contributor to his election campaigns. Last spring he pushed through a dozen new deregulation provisions for his client. "ComEd is not in a position to move legislation by itself," Cohen says. "It doesn't have the power in Springfield that it used to. But people trust Thompson in ways that some of the other lobbyists, wouldn't be trusted."

The pièce de résistance had yet come, however: A bill was moving down the pipe that was almost as unpopular as Heiple himself, the most thoroughly reviled piece of legislation in years. It would be Jim Thompson's job to make it law.

Thompson's phone rang about midnight at his Gold Coast midrise condo near Rush Street. It was James Fletcher, a former Winston & Strawn partner who had left to open his own ship, and is today considered the top dog among Springfield lobbyists. "He said, 'There's this bill out there having to do with liquor, and I want you to help me kill it,'" Thompson recalls. It was the Illinois Wine and Spirits Fair Dealing Act, which would make it extremely difficult for liquor and wine makers to fire their distributors. "He didn't tell me whose bill it was. My ears went up, and I said,' Uh, Jimmy, this wouldn't have anything to do with Wirtz, would it?"

William Wirtz's Judge & Dolph is one of the state's largest liquor distributors, and Wirtz, a long-time client of Winston & Strawn, wanted the bill to shore up his eroding empire.

About an hour after Fletcher called, the phone rang at the Thompson residence again. It was Wirtz. Thompson stuck by his old client, and squared off against Fletcher in the Super Bowl of lobbying.

Thompson likes to say there were 30 lobbyists on the Wirtz bill, and he was the 30th. But few doubt he was the most important. "For the number of lobbyists that Bill Wirtz bought for that bill, can you name five?" asks Jim Howard of Common Cause.

Never mind that once passed, the law would turn out to be an unmitigated disaster, questioned by a federal judge and abandoned by Governor Ryan, not to mention sticking Illinoisans with higher liquor prices. "[Thompson] is a hired gun," says state senator Dan Cronin, a Republican who voted against the Wirtz bill. "His job is to pass legislation. His job is to make an argument and persuade people. In the final analysis, his job is not to be right or wrong. His job is to win."

Thompson made the rounds inside the capitol. "I lobbied everybody in sight," he says. And he found ways to reach legislators he did not personally get to. "He would get groups of affected people to plead his case, to come see me," says Cronin. "He was very, very clever. He was getting constituents from my senate district who worked for Judge & Dolph saying, 'You gotta vote for this or I'll lose my job.'"

It wasn't an easy victory for Thompson, but it was a victory. "He physically camped out in Springfield for days on end," says Dillard. "He walked up and down the stairs, to individual legislators' offices, like when he was governor. I'm sure he didn't like being stuck in Springfield for an extra eight to ten days. Tough to stay at the Hilton instead of the mansion."

Illinois governors have rarely faced the question of what to do after leaving office. "There have been very few young enough to do anything or who've left without a cloud," says Green. "Thompson left young and unscathed." So the sight of a former governor - whose first campaign featured a flier claiming "Nobody owns Jim Thompson" - lobbying the legislature is unusual, and it stirs a range of reactions. Good government advocates instinctively sense evil. Academics are largely ambivalent. Politicians think it's great - or at least don't see any impropriety.

"He has a right to earn a living that way," says Netsch. "It's the [lobbying] process itself that is greatly discomforting."

Lee Daniels points out that Thompson purposely put some space between the governorship and his lobbying career. "He felt he had been respectfully gone long enough so people wouldn't look and say, 'The only thing you really bring is being governor.'"

And Green, a Thompson admirer, adds there's nothing wrong with a former governor as lobbyist. "Why should it be unseemly? For 14 years he served the state of Illinois. He probably could have made a lot of money in that time. People are much too envious."

Still, it's not hard to find critics who think a former public servant should stay above mere politics and money. "Here you have a governor elected to keep the public trust, and now he's traded in his public trust to serve private interests," says William McNary, co-executive director of Citizen Action Illinois, a liberal advocacy group. It would be refreshing, McNary adds, to find Thompson lobbying on behalf of, say, starving children.

"You can run a law firm and have clients and not do any lobbying," says Thompson's biographer Hartley, who now writes books from his home in Westminster, Colorado. "There are choices there. I'm a little surprised that he's lobbying the legislature directly. Just because he no longer holds public office doesn't mean we don't hold him to a reasonably high level of citizenship.

Edgar, Thompson's anointed successor, hasn't followed him into the lobbying game. "It would have to be something I felt comfortable with," Edgar says. Instead, Edgar is now lecturing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But he won't criticize Thompson. "I don't view my approach as any more noble than his approach," he says.

Some of Thompson's harshest critics have been caught on the opposite side of his issues. As executive director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, based in Rockford, Illinois, the Revered Tom Grey opposed Thompson when he brought gambling to the state in 1990 and has continued to cross paths in Springfield with the former governor. "There's something unseemly to me about political leaders who build a trough and then go feed off of it," says Grey. For years, Thompson represented Arlington International Racecourse's Richard Duchossois and Rosemont mayor Donald Stephens, who have both sought riverboat casinos. Stephens finally got his license last year.

Thompson says there is a misconception about his involvement in the controversial Rosemont gambling bill, which gave the city a casino. "I got credit for working on the gaming bill, and I had nothing to do with it," Thompson insists. "I simply was there. I spent a lot of time in Senator Philip's office waiting for my other bills to be called and the press just assumed. I was part of the general melee." (Philip says Thompson spent a lot of late afternoons in his office drinking orange soda and talking about old times.)

Thompson dismisses any notion that he has an unfair advantage as an ex-governor. "It's not a conflict; it's just a fact of life," he says. "The business culture is to form relationships and friendships and rely on them when you need them."

Grey remains unappeased. "Thompson seems to continually appear in places where there's money to be made, when things need to be finessed, or covered," the minister says.

Jim Thompson was in the Zurich airport, on a stopover from Geneva, Switzerland, heading back to Chicago, when he felt the cold bug hit him. "I tried echinacea, vitamin C with zinc, all the folk remedies," he says, now relazing in his office on a mild February day. "I took them religiously during the ten-hour flight. It didn't work. It's a real humdinger."

Forgive Thompson for being a little run down - he is in the midst of a 30-day travel schedule that includes not only Geneva but also New York, London, Dublin, Paris, Baltimore, Washington, New York again, and Tampa. All business. He's been on seven flights in ten days, his walk is stiff, and to say he's got the sniffles and a cough is an understatement.

But he is dressed smartly today, looking like the dandy chairman of a law firm: blue suit, blue and gold tie, white collar, blue cuff links, red suspenders decorated with dancing couples from the Roaring Twenties. Later this afternoon, he will fly to Springfield to introduce the chairman of Norfolk Southern railroad (a Winston & Strawn client with hundreds of miles of rails in Illinois) to Ryan for a discussion of a proposed merger between competitors. "The other side had already been there!" Thompson says the next day.

When he is not globetrotting or making important introductions, Thompson and his wife, Jayne, a principal of the Dilenschneider Group, a public relations firm, can be found grabbing a late dinner on Rush Street at restaurants like Carmine's, any number of neighborhood pizza joints, or Gibson's - if they are entertaining a guest who hasn't been there before. "It's big theatrics for out-of-towners," he says with a laugh.

Thompson's annual invitation-only Christmas party, which now flies under the Winston & Strawn banner, is big theatrics, too. Held at The Drake, it is always packed with "lawyers, politicians, judges, all the movers and shakers," says Sun-Times gossip columnist Michael Sneed. "You can get a million items out of one event because everyone is there."

The Thompsons have a Gold Coast condo, but in the summers they spend time at their home in Harbert, Michigan. Last year, they missed their summer vacation, so they planned to take it in March, joining their daughter, Samantha, a 21-year-old Georgetown University senior, in Florida, where she would be spending her spring break. After graduation Samantha may volunteer for the George W. Bush campaign.

For Big Jim, it's a whirlwind life, but he has no intention of slowing down. "It takes a lot of work and a lot of time, but I love it," he says. "Otherwise I wouldn't do it. It makes my life interesting, and challenging, to go from one to the other, to go from working a bill in Springfield to a city corporate board to something for the law firm, doing a lot of travel, going to Europe, New York, or Washington, doing a speech. It presents an amazing variety."

When Thompson left the Governor's Mansion, he still had a shade over $1.5 million in his state campaign fund, Citizens for Jim Thompson. As of last June, Citizens for Jim Thompson had dwindled to $20,507.66 - the result of a decade of giving, mostly to the state's major Republican domos like Philip, George Ryan, Daniels, and attorney general Jim Ryan. "That's where his power comes from," says McNary. "It's not just because he's Big Jim Thompson, former governor. He can dole out political contributions. If legislators do what he asks them to do, they know they will be repaid in kind."

Citizens for Jim Thompson shares its South Michigan Avenue office with America 2000, the federal fund Thompson formed upon leaving the governor's office, fueling speculation that he would one day launch a Presidential bid. Instead, America 2000 has doled out $97,500 since its inception, mostly to Republican candidates for national office. True to Thompson form, however, several Democrats have also benefited from their place in his extended web of important relationships, including former U.S. senator Alan Dixon, former congressman Dan Rostenkowski, and Mayor Daley (Judge Fitzgerald is also a Democrat).

Last year, America 2000 dispensed just $2,500, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the fund is likely to be more active as the fall elections approach. "Chicago's been discovered as a place to come and tap into the local folks," Thompson says. "It used to be just New York and Los Angeles. Now it seems like there are candidates for the Senate here every other week, or candidates for governor in other states."

Thompson also makes campaign contributions from his private stash. In 1999, he personally gave $1,000 to George W. Bush (Thompson is on Bush's national finance committee) and $1,000 to Bill Bradley. He gave to Bush "out of commitment" and to Bradley "out of respect to a client, a long-time personal friend close to Bradley who asked me to," Thompson says. (He would not name the client.)

Of course, it can't hurt to hedge your bets. Winston & Strawn's political action committee gives almost equally to congressional Democrats and Republicans. As the firm's Web site reminds prospective clients: "We are prepared to provide effective client service on both sides of the political aisle."

One afternoon in January, yet another uniquely broad coalition of politicians and legal luminaries gathered. The time, it was to honor the ascension of U.S. District Court judge Ann Claire Williams to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Chief judge Richard A. Posner emceed the ceremony. U.S. senators Richard Durbin and Peter Fitzgerald offered greetings, as did congressman Bobby Rush. The oath was administered. And then a man sitting front and center rose to begin the day's remarks.

It was Big Jim Thompson, who got to know Williams - also president of the Federal Judges Association, which is represented by Winston & Strawn - when she worked for his successor, Sam Skinner, in the U.S. attorney's office.

Thompson's speech was moving, eloquent - and extemporaneous, save for a few words scribbled on a matchbook-size piece of paper. Even Big Jim seemed to choke up talking about Williams's inspirational climb to becoming the first African American to sit on the Seventh Circuit bench. The performance was heartfelt and powerful, bringing out the best in the former governor. One might even call it statesmanlike.

"I used to say he loved being governor much more than governing," says Netsch, a Democratic state senator throughout Thompson's tenure. Thompson retired after four terms, and his national potential was never realized, but perhaps he has found a way to stay in the job he really loves. He has remained, in many ways, the governor of Illinois.


Mired in a scandal that got him sued, Illinois's governor tapped an old friend for help.

When Governor George Ryan got slapped with lawsuits in the licenses-for-bribes scandal, he hired his old pal Jim Thompson to defend him. So far, Thompson has come through - the first suit hasn't gone anywhere. But a dispute embedded in the litigation once again illustrates the questions raised by the former governor's complicated universe.

In January 1999, just after he took office, Ryan was sued in federal court by the Better Government Association, which argued that Ryan, as secretary of state, had derived unfair political advantage from the bribe money that ended up in his campaign fund after some of his workers sold driver's licenses to unqualified truckers. The BGA contended that the scam had deprived Illinois voters of the right to a fair election. Thompson, as defense lawyer, won the first round when U.S. district court judge James Zagel dismissed the case, in essence ruling that the BGA's claim was a stretch.

The BGA obviously did not like the ruling, but it also felt cheated because of the man who made it: Zagel had held two positions, first as director of revenue and later as director of the state police, under Thompson. Zagel also coauthored two legal textbooks with Thompson in the 1980s.

"Let's face it," says J. Terrence Brunner, the former federal prosecutor who is now the BGA's executive director. "Everybody in this city who knows the law knows that Jimmy Zagel and Jim Thompson are close buddies from way back when. There's no way Jimmy Zagel was going to find against Jim Thompson."

Zagel denied a BGA motion that he pass the case to another judge (recuse himself, in the language of the law), saying that he had searched his conscience and found that he could rule fairly. Any debt he owed to Thompson, Zagel wrote in his opinion, had been "discharged long ago." Zagel also noted, "It is true that Mr. Thompson had a great deal to do with my appointment to this bench. I suspect there are at least a half a dozen or more judges of this court about whom the same could be said."

Thompson says, "Zagel and I have been friends for years, but lots of lawyers are friends with judges. I don't expect anything from Jim Zagel." (Another friend is the district court's chief judge, Marvin Aspen, a classmate from Northwestern law school and a colleague from the Cook County state's attorney's office.)

The BGA appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, where it was rejected by a three-judge pandel. One of the judges on the panel was William J. Bauer, a former U.S. attorney whose first assistant was Jim Thompson.

"It's just one big happy family over there," Brunner says. "The public is ill-served by these things. It's just one more example of how the fix is in. And when George Ryan hires Jim Thompson to defend him, the fix is in."

And yet, right or wrong, the strands of politics and law are so deeply entangled, particularly in Illinois, that the courthouse might have to shut down if connections of this sort led judges to recuse themselves from cases. "Simple friendship, past friendship, or past association has never been thought to be grounds for disqualification," says Steve Lubet, a professor of legal ethics at Northwestern University School of Law. "You can't turn the former governor into some kind of legal Typhoid Mary where he no longer could appear in court."

The BGA is planning to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court - where Thompson doesn't have any close friends. (Ryan's campaign fund has already paid Winston & Strawn more than $72,000 in legal fees for the case.) In the meantime, the BGA is attending to the separate suit filed against Ryan in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the bribe scandal. Thompson is defending Ryan in that case, too. (The BGA has raised no complaints about Ellis Reid, the judge hearing it.) "Jim Thompson, at the same time, is Ryan's governor, Ryan's lawyer, his counselor, and confessor!" gripes Brunner. "This is like bringing in the pope."


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Posted on August 18, 2020

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