Illinois corruption reforms gain momentum with Madigan gone

Illinois corruption reforms gain momentum with Madigan gone

With Mike Madigan out as Illinois House speaker, state lawmakers have a unique opportunity to turn around the second-most corrupt state in the country. Ethics proposals are gaining support.

Now that former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has been replaced by a successor, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, there is hope for the state rated as second-most corrupt in the nation.

Welch has indicated he will back some ethics reforms that should give Illinoisans hope for improved transparency and accountability in Springfield. One of his goals is to pass an ethics reform package before the General Assembly adjourns in May, according to the Chicago Tribune.

That’s a solid goal, considering the state’s notorious past and inability to fix the problems while Madigan was in office.

Illinois was ranked as the second-most corrupt state in the nation from 1976 through 2019, and the most corrupt among the top 10 largest states since Madigan was elected speaker in 1983, based on data on federal corruption convictions from the U.S. Department of Justice. And that data does not account for the most recent incidents in Illinois, such as the federal investigation that directly led to Madigan’s ouster as speaker, resignation from the House and as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

After several corruption indictments, some targeting members of the General Assembly, the legislature established the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform in 2019. That commission was supposed to put out a report recommending changes to Illinois’ existing ethics laws by March 31, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed those efforts, and the commission has yet to publish a report. Welch nevertheless suggested the commission’s work would be incorporated into any ethics reform package, but without a report to review it is difficult to know what that might entail.

To achieve meaningful reform, Illinois needs to (1) empower the watchdog charged with holding lawmakers accountable for wrongdoing; (2) improve transparency by improving financial disclosures from lawmakers; (3) prohibit members of the General Assembly from working as lobbyists to executive agencies and local governments; (4) require a cooling off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists to the General Assembly after leaving office.

  1. Empower the Legislative Inspector General 

In a state mired in corruption, it makes no sense that the watchdogs entrusted to hold lawmakers accountable must first seek approval from a commission made up of lawmakers. But the Legislative Inspector General tasked with investigating ethics complaints against members of the General Assembly must get approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission to open investigations, to issue subpoenas, and, in most cases, to publish summary reports, even when she has found a case of wrongdoing. And with the commission made up of four Democratic and four Republican lawmakers, a party-line vote can block any action by the Legislative Inspector General.

Former Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter testified about that problem in 2020 before the Commission on Lobbying and Ethics Reform. She said the legislative ethics commission had killed an investigation into “serious wrongdoing” by a sitting lawmaker. Even if she had completed the investigation, the Legislative Ethics Commission could refuse to allow her to publish her findings. In fact, the Legislative Ethics Commission refused to publish two founded reports out of the five the inspector general requested in 2019.

It is impossible to know what those reports would have revealed, but lawmakers should not be able to block investigations of complaints or publication of summary reports regarding their colleagues in the General Assembly. The Legislative Inspector General should be permitted to open investigations into complaints, issue subpoenas for evidence and publish founded summary reports without requiring approval from the lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission. There is a bill in the House of Representatives that would do just that. House Bill 2774, introduced by state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, empowers the Legislative Inspector General with the independence she needs to hold Illinois lawmakers accountable.

  1. Improve financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers

Despite the fact Illinois lawmakers are among the highest paid in the country, Illinois is still considered a part-time legislature, and many members of the General Assembly have outside sources of income. At the same time, Illinois ethics rules on lawmaker conflicts of interest lack any enforcement mechanism, leaving them on the honor system for recusing themselves from voting in the case of a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, Madigan’s legacy includes using his legislative power and outsized influence to benefit clients and associates.

And while lawmakers are required to file what is called a “statement of economic interest,” the disclosures required are so lax the sheets are often known as “none sheets” for the answers most often given on the forms. Welch described the disclosure form as it currently stands as a “worthless piece of document.”

Given the state’s history of corruption and the lack of teeth in the ethics requirements, the public should know more about lawmakers’ assets in addition to the currently required capital gains information, all outside sources of income rather than only specified sources in the current form, significant creditors and all lobbying relationships so voters can make the call if they perceive a conflict of interest. These should also apply to the filer’s close family members so that filers cannot get around the enhanced disclosure requirements. Adding family would give a fuller picture of potential conflicts, unlike current disclosure requirements.

For example, former state Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, co-sponsored and voted for the ComEd-backed Future Energy Jobs Act in December 2016 while his son’s lobbying company, Apex Strategy, had a contract with ComEd in 2015 for “government relations services.” Acevedo never revealed the conflict of interest related to the bill. He and his sons are now under federal indictment for tax invasion as part of the ComEd lobbying investigation, with the sons pleading “not guilty” on March 3. The ethical rule that lawmakers should disclose and recuse themselves in the case of conflicts of interest is a mere suggestion, but Acevedo was not required to reveal his familial conflict. That needs to change.

Disclosures can exempt certain personal information, such as the value and location of primary personal residences, to protect privacy while still giving the public a better picture of where any given lawmaker’s financial interests lie. Lawmakers should then be held accountable by both the public and the press when they put their own interests before the interests of their constituents.

Two bills that would enhance financial disclosure requirement are House Bill 3751, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, and Senate Bill 1597, sponsored by state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago. These bills would require lawmakers to disclose the business associations, sources of income, securities and real estate assets, and significant creditors for the filer and their immediate family members, providing exemptions for personal matters such as primary personal residences.

  1. End lawmaker lobbying

 There is nothing in Illinois law preventing lawmakers from being employed as lobbyists to local governments or state agencies. This needs to change. The lobbying profession is inherently susceptible to fostering conflicts of interest between lawmakers and voters – lobbyists are hired to promote the particular interests of their clients through legislation, but legislators are elected to promote the broader interests of their constituents.

The charges against former state Rep. Luis Arroyo illustrate how the interests of clients can drive a lobbyist to unethical behavior. Arroyo was employed as a lobbyist to the city of Chicago, and in 2019 he was charged with attempting to bribe a state senator to benefit one of his clients. This behavior is, of course, already illegal, but it is an extreme example of the temptation that lawmaker lobbyists face to put the interests of their clients above those of the general public.

Moreover, lobbying local governments can itself create conflicts, given the many issues of local importance that state lawmakers vote on. When a state lawmaker lobbies a local government for a client, the members of that body know the lawmaker might be voting on measures that will affect the municipality. This gives the appearance of lawmakers using their special clout as state legislators to influence the passage of ordinances and regulations. And when, for example, 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.

Members of the General Assembly should not be employed as lobbyists of state or local government bodies during their tenure in office. Barring this practice through statute will give the public confidence that lawmakers are looking out for public interests, and it will ensure that lawmakers avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The city of Chicago has already taken this step, prohibiting members of the General Assembly from lobbying the city. The state should follow the city’s lead and bar its legislators from lobbying all local governments and state executive agencies.

House Bill 3664, introduced by state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, would do just that. This bill would similarly ban members of the General Assembly from being paid to lobby officials of any unit of local government or executive branch officials, making a violation a Class A misdemeanor.

  1. Stop the revolving door

The problem of lawmakers taking employment to lobby governments does not end when that lawmaker leaves office. A member of the General Assembly can leave office one day, and start lobbying former colleagues the next day. The advantages to lobbying firms are clear: ex-lawmakers will often have more influence with current lawmakers. More than that, when a lawmaker leaves office to immediately become a lobbyist, it gives the appearance that current lawmakers might take legislative action to gain favor with their future employers.

Most states require a “cooling off” period between the time a lawmaker leaves office and when that former lawmaker can accept employment as a lobbyist. Typically, states require lawmakers to wait one or two years before they become lobbyists, but restrictions can range from six months to six years. As of 2019, Illinois was one of only 14 states that do not require any cooling off period. Illinois should join the majority and pass a revolving door law in line with the rest of the country.

Legislation recently filed would do that. House Bill 3486, also introduced by Stava-Murray, would require lawmakers and other statewide officials and heads of executive agencies to wait for two years before going to work as a lobbyist.

With new leadership in the Illinois General Assembly comes the opportunity to address ethics reform – a goal that leaders such as Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Welch and Senate President Don Harmon have publicly supported.

To change the culture of corruption in Illinois, lawmakers should empower corruption watchdogs such as the Legislative Inspector General, improve transparency through enhanced financial disclosures for lawmakers, and reform the practice of lobbying by banning lawmaker lobbying of other governmental entities and establishing a cooling off period before members of the General Assembly pass through the revolving door from lawmaker to lobbyist. Those four reforms would put Illinois on a better footing with voters and might allow it to improve from second-most corrupt.

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