Time to prevent the next Madigan—even while he’s still here

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But corruption in Illinois is as resilient as weeds sprouting through sidewalk cracks. It survives despite the long list of governors, legislators and other state officials packed off to prison over the past 50 years. Recent months have seen charges against state senators Terry Link and Thomas Cullerton, former state senator Martin Sandoval, and former state rep. Luis Arroyo. Cullerton and Arroyo pleaded not guilty, Sandoval pleaded guilty and Link, who was charged last week, has yet to respond.

To eradicate corruption once and for all, Illinois must prevent the rise of another Madigan. Never again should a political leader amass such power to reward friends, punish enemies and enrich himself at taxpayer expense. Madigan’s power has cost Illinoisans dearly—in higher electricity rates, unsustainable public pension obligations and countless other unnecessary or excessive expenditures of taxpayer money. And there’s no telling how many companies avoid doing business here because of Illinois’ reputation for parasitic political graft.

Plenty of Illinois politicians would love to become the next Madigan, or at least a reasonable facsimile. And relatively few obstacles stand in their way. See, an important element in Madigan’s success has been his ability to operate largely within applicable law and Illinois’ loose ethical rules for state legislators. Any would-be successor or successors could flourish within those same generous boundaries—as many lawmakers already do.

Legislative ethics standards are the first line of defense against political corruption. Illinois’ lax standards and weak oversight invite corruption and attract dishonest people into politics. Stronger rules and enforcement would keep honest lawmakers honest and deter the dishonest from seeking public office.

Serious political reform in Illinois starts with shoring up this first line of defense. And the rules of conduct for Illinois legislators need a lot of shoring up. The state ranked 32nd nationally for "legislative accountability" in a 2015 report on state ethics by the Center for Public Accountability.

"There are a lot of states that do a much better job than we do," says Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois, an organization dedicated to cleaning up Illinois politics.

Shortcomings include the lack of a "revolving door" rule. Illinois is one of only ten states that doesn’t ban legislators from working as lobbyists immediately after leaving office. Most require a "cooling off period" of one or two years. Allowing legislators to move directly into lobbying jobs fosters cozy relations between companies pushing or fighting legislation–like Com Ed–and lawmakers looking ahead to their next career move. Kaplan says a cooling off period like those imposed by other states would cut down on legislators "auditioning for lobbyist jobs" by advancing the agendas of potential future employers.

Another gap is the absence of a ban on legislators themselves acting as lobbyists before other governmental bodies. It’s not uncommon for Illinois elected officials to do brisk business lobbying one arm of government while serving in another. Arroyo, for example, is accused of bribing a state senator on behalf of a lobbying client while serving in the Illinois House.

Perhaps the most glaring deficiency is the structure of legislative ethics oversight in Illinois. An inspector general charged with policing ethical compliance by legislators can’t initiate an investigation, issue subpoenas or publish investigative reports without permission from a legislative ethics commission comprised of state legislators.

If you’re wondering why it takes a federal prosecution to tackle corruption in Illinois politics, look no further than this blatant conflict of interests. State legislators shouldn’t hold veto power over ethics investigations of state legislators. They have a strong incentive to go easy on fellow lawmakers, whose votes they may need on future bills, and who may influence their chances of rising to powerful positions within the legislature.

"No group should be policing themselves," Kaplan says. "You get friends policing friends, colleagues policing colleagues."

Former legislative inspector general Julie Porter testified earlier this year that the commission blocked publication of her report on an investigation that found misconduct by a sitting legislator. The public has a right to know the identity of that legislator and the nature of the misconduct Porter uncovered.

Kaplan points out that many other states have truly independent ethics enforcement agencies with full powers to open, conduct and publicize investigations. Even the inspector general for Illinois’ executive branch can initiate investigations and issue subpoenas without the Governor’s permission.

"If you want independent investigations, you need an independent office," Kaplan says.

I couldn’t agree more. So it’s good to see some state legislators pushing for ethics reforms. As my colleague Greg Hinz reported Aug. 13, a group of Democratic  senators and house members are pushing a package of new rules that would prohibit sitting legislators from lobbying other government agencies, ban legislators from working as lobbyists for a year after leaving office, require more disclosure of legislators’ outside incomes, impose term limits on legislative leaders, and otherwise improve ethical standards. 

Perhaps most important, they would make the inspector general truly independent, with power to initiate investigations. Similar measures have been circulating in Springfield, but a task force commissioned to craft legislation appeared to have stalled out before the ComEd scandal broke. 

Hopefully the latest push will restore momentum. Getting ethics reforms through a legislative body–especially an Illinois legislature–that would be subject to the tighter rules is never easy. When  Madigan was at the height of his powers, it was a lost cause. 

But Madigan’s power is at a low ebb, and public disgust with Springfield corruption is at an all-time high. The time may be ripe for an ethics bill with teeth. 

Legislators and Gov. J.B. Pritzker should seize this rare opportunity to strike a serious blow against the corruption that costs Illinois so much. Enacting tough ethics rules for legislators won’t eliminate corruption completely. But it would show that Springfield serious about cleaning up the shady practices that have come to define Illinois, while giving ethics enforcers effective tools to stop budding practitioners of those dark arts before they blossom into new Madigans. 

26-Delivered

via Crain’s Chicago Business

August 19, 2020 at 05:58AM

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