World

A Latino Cleaning Up Illinois Politics

Taxpayers say they're sick of the continuing breach of trust, but it's almost as if they've come to expect nothing less in government. 

"Very corrupt, dirty as hell!" said one man about political corruption. 

Shakedowns, shady deals, patronage, and payoffs. It may be the Chicago waybut it's those very scandals that drive Ricardo Meza to work harder. 

Meza is Illinois' new Executive Inspector General, not to mention the state's first Hispanic Inspector General. It's his job to catch state workers who commit fraud, misbehave or waste your money. With 160-thousand employees and 350 state agencies, boards, commissions, and public universities to oversee, he hears it all, from the petty complaints to the ones that make headlines. Meza says it's work he enjoys. 

"It's almost like you're putting a puzzle together. You are putting the pieces together with documents. You have to put yourself in that person's shoes and wonder what the person would say if they were confronted about A, B or C," he says.

Meza was asked about being true to his mission, even if it meant uncovering wrongdoing that went all the way to the governor who appointed him. Noting the one-time contentious relationship Mayor Daley had with his IG, David Hoffman, Meza says, "The point of the office is to have an internal watchdog. That means if there is fraud out therewhether it's the governor's office, the lieutenant governor's office or any of the agencies or the universitiesI would think whoever appoints that person would want to make sure that person keeps their eye on the ball and focuses on that issue."

Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor, says inspector generals have their work cut out for them.

"Since 1970, there have been 1500 people convicted of public corruption in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois. It costs us about $500 million dollars a year in lost tax money." 

Simpson says anyone who takes on The Chicago Machine better have moxie. "The new norm has to be to do it right and that takes a long time for people to believe that's true, that patronage isn't the way to do business here," he says.

Meza is ready to make it right, even get his hands dirty if he must. It's what he did for 10 years as a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney.

"It's a feeling that you've used your resources to benefit the state or the U.S. Attorney's office to help the victims of fraud," he says.

Meza is giving workers fair warning now by teaching them about ethics, especially when it comes to awarding state contracts.

His Latino roots helped shape the man he is today. Raised in Palatine, Meza's parents had only a third grade education. It's no wonder tenacity is something he learned early in lifewhich is not good news for the bad guys. "I never really looked at it like the good guys and the bad guys. What I looked at was that they are people who make bad decisions," Meza said.

Before working for taxpayers, Meza made it his business to fight for immigrant rights and for women, especially in the area of government contracts awarded to minority owned businesses disguised as otherwise. Meza points out those contracts are supposed to help people raise themselves up to a higher level, and taking that from them is considered fraud.

Anita Padilla reports for WFLD Fox Chicago. For more news coverage of Chicago go to myfoxchicago.com