4 ways Springfield should combat ‘ComEd 4’ corruption
A jury found all “ComEd Four” defendants guilty of bribing Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan in exchange for favorable legislation. It was an alarm for Springfield lawmakers that half-measures don’t work and lasting ethics reform is needed in Illinois.
Now that a jury has found all “ComEd Four” defendants guilty of bribing Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, it looks like ethics reform is again being discussed in Springfield.
There are four concrete steps state lawmakers can take to turn talk into action that matters: slow themselves from becoming lobbyists, sharpen their watchdog’s teeth, stop themselves from lobbying local leaders and strengthen their conflict of interest laws.
In the previous Illinois General Assembly, legislators took some very small steps toward reform in an omnibus ethics reform bill – such small steps that changes were found lacking by most good government groups. Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope resigned after they passed the omnibus bill, which not only did too little but also narrowed her jurisdiction.
But with the “ComEd Four” convicted and Madigan’s trial approaching, there is a renewed push for ethics reform. Here are four ways Springfield could begin to dismantle its culture of corruption.
1) End the revolving door
There should be at least a one-year buffer between the time a lawmaker leaves office and becomes a lobbyist. This would create a longer “cooling-off” period and bring Illinois lobbying restrictions more in line with other states. The current revolving-door provision contains a loophole that would allow lawmakers who complete their terms to leave office one day and lobby their colleagues the next.
2) Empower the Legislative Inspector General
The omnibus bill gave the Legislative Inspector General the power to open investigations into potential ethics violations without first getting permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission, but it narrowed the scope of the inspector general’s authority to only violations related to a lawmaker’s official duties. The legislature’s watchdog should have the authority to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses and to publish findings of wrongdoing without getting permission from the peers of those being investigated. Lawmakers should also consider Pope’s recommendations, including to add a ninth member – a non-lawmaker – to the commission.
3) Stop lawmakers from lobbying local governments
State lawmakers will often vote on legislation that can have a huge impact on local governments. For example, several proposals from newly elected Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson would require action from the General Assembly. Lawmakers in Illinois can earn income by lobbying local governments on behalf of their paying clients. The conflict of interest is clear – state lawmakers have leverage over local governments that few other lobbyists will possess. The practice should be prohibited.
The omnibus ethics bill restricted lawmakers from being employed as lobbyists only for a firm registered to lobby the unit of government they serve. This will tend to bar lawmakers from working as lobbyists for big firms but allows them to open their own shops and get around that restriction. To end the culture of corruption, Illinois should close this loophole and prohibit any state lawmaker from lobbying local governments in Illinois.
4) Give teeth to Illinois lawmakers’ conflict of interest rules
Under the current law, Illinois lawmakers decide for themselves whether they have conflicts of interest and have discretion whether to disclose those conflicts or recuse themselves from voting. If a lawmaker has a personal, family or client legislative interest in a measure, under current law he or she should “consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation.” If the lawmaker determines that is not feasible, he or she should “consider the possibility of abstaining” from the official action. Furthermore, “if he does abstain, he should disclose that fact to his respective legislative body.”
Legislators are on the honor system when it comes to revealing conflicts and eliminating themselves from voting in those cases. And while Illinois does require lawmakers to file general financial disclosure statements, a lawmaker is not required to declare when he or she faces a conflict before taking a vote.
Illinois lawmakers should be required to declare a conflict of interest before taking any official action. They should recuse themselves from voting on legislation when they have such a conflict. Much of the country already does so.
In addition to these four proposals, lawmakers should consider a pair of bills filed this session to punish corrupt politicians. Senate Bill 1687 would prohibit General Assembly members from paying lawyers, expert witnesses and investigators with campaign funds. Senate Bill 2137 would impose a $100,000 fine for legislators convicted of using their General Assembly office to commit a felony. Neither of these bills has moved this session, but the convictions in the “ComEd Four” trial should give them new life.
The proposals won’t fix everything that is wrong with Springfield, but they will begin to hammer at the foundations of the culture of corruption the “ComEd Four” again exposed.