FBI investigating suburban Illinois township road commissioner

FBI investigating suburban Illinois township road commissioner

An ongoing corruption probe targeting Illinois officeholders has shown there’s no unit of government too small to invite the attention of federal investigators.

As an ongoing corruption probe sweeps across Illinois state and local governments, another Chicago suburb has found itself on federal investigators’ radar.

Bloomingdale Township Highway Commissioner Robert Czernek is the latest Illinois public officeholder to come under federal scrutiny. Agents executed a search warrant at his office Jan. 21, prompting the township supervisor to call for Czernek’s immediate resignation.

Federal agents were seeking information on Czernek’s financial dealings and relationship to vendors, Township Supervisor Michael Hovde Jr. said in a written statement provided to the Daily Herald.

“The Bloomingdale Township office was not the subject of the federal search warrant, which related solely to alleged conduct within the Bloomingdale Township Highway Department and a handful of its vendors,” Hovde wrote.

While those vendors were not identified, Bloomingdale Township does not contain any red-light traffic cameras. Politically connected red-light camera vendor SafeSpeed LLC has been the common thread in much of the federal corruption probe.

Czernek refused comment. He is serving his second term as highway commissioner.

The ongoing corruption probe in Illinois has ensnared political power players near the top rungs of state government. But a host of federal raids concentrated in the Chicago suburbs has reminded Illinoisans that the relative obscurity of smaller government bodies – such as townships – can encourage corruption, allowing abuses to go largely undetected. Illinois is home to nearly 7,000 government bodies, more than any other state by far.

In 2018, three separate townships in McHenry County were each under investigation simultaneously. A seven-month investigation led the county state’s attorney to conclude that townships were “deeply flawed” as a form of government and recommended the consolidation of at least one of the targeted townships.

The Bloomingdale Township investigation follows the resignation of nearby suburb Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci, after the Chicago Tribune reported he was under federal scrutiny for his involvement with SafeSpeed.

In September 2019, a series of raids involving the FBI and IRS targeted the home and offices of former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, and the village halls of Lyons, McCook and Summit, each of which dealt with SafeSpeed. Federal authorities confirmed at the time that the company was one subject of those probes.

An analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute in October 2019 found Chicago and other local governments across Illinois have banked over $1 billion combined between 2008 and 2018, and that the presence of red-light cameras outside Chicago has increased threefold during that time.

Reversing the trend

The FBI’s investigation of Czernek is only the latest tale in Illinois’ ongoing corruption saga. Fortunately, there are steps state leaders could take to reverse Illinois’ ranking as the second-most corrupt state and restore Illinoisans’ record-low trust in their state government.

Reforms should include:

  • A revolving-door restriction. Currently, lawmakers could retire on Tuesday and be in the Statehouse working for a lobbying firm by Wednesday. The lack of a cooling-off period encourages lawmakers to prioritize building relationships with special interest groups that can help them in life after the legislature, rather than to serve constituents. To combat this, the Institute recommends requiring lawmakers to wait at least two years before becoming lobbyists.
  • A ban on lobbying for sitting lawmakers. There’s an absurdity to the fact that state law allows lawmakers to be registered lobbyists with local governments. When a state lawmaker lobbies local government for a client, the members of that body know the lawmaker might be voting on measures that will affect the municipality. Furthermore, when municipal or regulatory issues come before the General Assembly, lawmaker-lobbyists are in the position of potentially casting a vote to curry favor with government entities they hope to sway to benefit their clients.
  • Mandated disclosure and voting recusal. Lawmakers are trusted, not mandated, to give notice when they’re voting on an issue with which they have a potential conflict of interest. Public disclosure and recusal when a lawmaker has a personal stake in a bill should be required.
  • More legislative inspector general power. The state’s legislative inspector general has been described as a “toothless tiger” – lacking the power to publish reports without approval from an ethics commission made up of eight legislators. This commission also grants or denies permission to the inspector general to open investigations or issue subpoenas.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, himself the subject of a federal probe, campaigned in part on a pledge to transform government ethics. Illinoisans would benefit from turning that campaign rhetoric into political action.

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