Feds indict champion of Illinois gas tax hike, ‘fair tax’ on tax fraud and bribery
The former chair of the influential Senate Transportation Committee is the fourth Illinois politician indicted on federal charges amid a sweeping FBI probe.
Four months after federal agents ransacked the home and offices of former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, the once-influential lawmaker is the latest indicted in an extensive Illinois corruption probe.
On Jan. 27, federal prosecutors charged Sandoval, who formerly headed the powerful Illinois Senate Transportation Committee, on two counts involving filing a false tax return and improper financial arrangements with a controversial red-light camera company.
According to the indictment, Sandoval “corruptly solicited” and accepted money from the red-light camera vendor in exchange for influencing legislation in its favor and opposing legislation that threatened the industry’s interests between 2016 and 2019.
The two-count indictment also charges that Sandoval purposely filed a federal income tax return on which he “substantially” underreported his total income at $125,905.
Sandoval is one of three state lawmakers who voted in favor of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s progressive income tax amendment last year who have since been indicted on corruption charges, along with Democratic state Sen. Tom Cullerton and former Democratic state Rep. Luis Arroyo. Illinois voters will face the question of whether to scrap the state’s constitutional flat income tax protection on Nov. 3.
While Pritzker and others describe the $3.7 billion tax hike as a “fair tax,” opponents have blasted the plan as a “blank check” for Springfield corruption.
As transportation committee chair, Sandoval also played a key role in shepherding the $45 billion capital plan to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk in June 2019. The plan doubled the state gas tax and increased a variety of other taxes and fees, lifting Illinoisans’ total average state and local gas tax burden to third-highest from 10th in the nation.
An Illinois Policy Institute report published that year detailed how lawmakers could have spent $10 billion more on infrastructure without hiking taxes. Among the Institute’s recommendations was adopting a system similar to that of Virginia’s “SMART SCALE” system, which prioritizes infrastructure investments based on an objective and quantifiable cost-benefit analysis. Such a system ensures that lawmakers invest in infrastructure projects based on need, rather than politics or self-interest.
The charges brought against Sandoval only reinforce the need for those proposed reforms to Illinois’ capital spending, as well as its ethics laws.
Raids and red lights
In September 2019, a series of raids involving the FBI and IRS targeted the home and offices of Sandoval, seeking information in part on SafeSpeed LLC, a politically connected red-light camera company whose executives had for years generously furnished Sandoval’s political war chest.
In 2017, a Chicago Tribune investigation found Sandoval used his position as chair of the transportation committee to pressure the Illinois Department of Transportation into reversing its denial of the installation of SafeSpeed cameras at intersections the agency had determined to be safe. A year later, Sandoval received the largest political donation in SafeSpeed’s history.
An Illinois Policy Institute investigation found that red-light camera devices have taken in more than $1 billion in fines from Illinois drivers since 2008, despite producing no significant gains in traffic safety.
Sandoval resigned from his influential committee chairmanship in October 2019, and from the Illinois Senate altogether on Jan. 1.
Sandoval’s indictment, which comes amid a sweeping federal investigation into Illinois government corruption, is the fourth among high-profile Illinois officeholders since the details of the probe started to surface in 2019.
Federal authorities previously served state Rep. Luis Arroyo bribery charges of his own in October, two months after hitting Sen. Tom Cullerton with a 42-count embezzlement charge. In May, Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward – the city’s longest-serving alderman – received a 14-count indictment for allegedly attempting to strong-arm a fast food franchisee into hiring his private law practice for property tax work.
Pritzker, himself the subject of a federal investigation involving tax fraud, campaigned in part on rooting out government corruption in Illinois. And while that rhetoric has yet to meet action, there are numerous steps state lawmakers could take to clean up state government.
In addition to eliminating political influence over state capital spending, the following ethics reforms would go far in curbing political corruption in Illinois:
- Adopting revolving door restrictions on state lawmakers becoming lobbyists.
- Empowering the Illinois legislative inspector general to investigate lawmaker corruption. As is, this muzzled watchdog office must seek approval from a panel of state lawmakers before opening investigations, issuing subpoenas and even publishing summary reports.
- Mandating state lawmakers recuse themselves from votes in which they have a conflict of interest. There is no current state law or even parliamentary rule requiring Illinois lawmakers to disclose a conflict of interest or to excuse themselves from voting on issues where they have personal or private financial interests.
- Reforming the Illinois House rules, which grant more concentrated power to the House speaker than any other legislative rules in the country.
- Passing a bipartisan constitutional amendment to end politically drawn legislative maps in Illinois.
Experts on good government rank Illinois the second-most corrupt state and Chicago the most corrupt city in the nation. That level of impropriety has brought with it significant economic stress and record-low levels of government trust.
To recover the state’s sordid national reputation, and help create an environment ripe for economic growth, state leaders would be wise to take the steps necessary to combat corruption in state government, rather than leaving it to federal prosecutors to fill that void.