Illinois home to more public corruption convictions than any other state since 2000
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s release from federal prison may be making room behind bars for other Illinois politicians. Illinois is the top state for corruption, and federal agents are busy looking for more.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s early release from federal prison should not be a source of comfort for corrupt politicians in Illinois: The FBI is actively watching for signs of fancy lifestyles that can’t be explained by their public pay.
New figures from a WLS-TV report found Illinois has tallied 891 public corruption convictions since 2000, more than any other state. This does not include the guilty plea filed Jan. 28 by former state Sen. Martin Sandoval for bribery and tax fraud.
Last year, the University of Illinois at Chicago compiled U.S. Department of Justice data from 1976 to 2017 and found the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois had 1,730 federal corruption convictions: more than any other district court in the country.
And no other state has seen four of its past 10 former governors go to prison. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s removal of toilets from a Chicago mansion to save $331,000 in property taxes is also the subject of a federal probe.
Federal investigations began to zero in on politicians at all levels in 2019. WLS’s report notes recent investigations and convictions are just the start of what may turn out to be a far-reaching corruption investigation. A grand jury began hearing evidence about potential corruption schemes back in 2014.
Kathy Enstrom, the special agent in charge of the IRS Criminal Investigation Unit in Chicago, says her team looks for odd relationships between income and spending habits.
“We want to see how much they report every year and then we compare that with what their lifestyle is like,” Enstrom explained to WLS’s Chuck Goudie. “Are they spending money on boats, and cars, and expensive houses, and things (like) vacations, things like that?”
A lifestyle wrapped in riches is a strong indicator money is coming from somewhere else, especially for state lawmakers who receive a base salary of $65,836.
Multiple bills are awaiting hearings during the current legislative session that tackle many loopholes which have allowed lawmakers to engage in corrupt activities.
“Revolving door” ban
Illinois is just one of 14 states without some version of a cooling-off period for former state lawmakers and agency heads before they become lobbyists. Under current Illinois law, they can lobby their former colleagues the day after leaving office.
State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, filed Senate Bill 2314 in November with bipartisan support to close the “revolving door” and mandate a two-year cooling-off period before lawmakers can join the lobbying world in Springfield.
Lawmakers who immediately become lobbyists give their constituents the impression they were more concerned about working on behalf of a specific special interest group rather than working on behalf of the people in their district. A two-year cooling-off period reduces the appearance of public corruption and restores voter confidence.
Disclosure of conflicts of interest
Conflicts of interest have proven to be a big problem in the General Assembly and Chicago City Council. Lawmakers have consistently voted and lobbied for legislation to benefit their own personal interests.
House Bill 4041, filed by state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, would require state lawmakers to disclose any conflict of interest before taking action on a bill. This includes disclosing any financial interest for the lawmaker or immediate family member, there being a substantial interest in the bill and that the effect of the lawmaker’s interest on the bill is greater than its effect on the general public.
Member lobbying ban
Chicago City Council members closed out 2019 by fulfilling one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s anti-corruption proposals and banned aldermen, city workers, state lawmakers and other elected leaders from doubling as lobbyists to City Hall or city departments. A new bill in the Illinois General Assembly is also aimed at curbing sitting lawmakers’ ability to act as lobbyists.
Ammons filed House Bill 4042 in January, which would ban General Assembly members and anyone in their household from working as lobbyists at the same time. A violation of the proposed law would be a Class A misdemeanor and would result in the legislator being removed from office. The proposal would take effect immediately, if passed.
An independent watchdog
The Legislative Inspector General, or LIG, plays an important role by holding legislators accountable for ethics violations. But former Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter testified that lawmakers were able to block action by her office. Under the current format, lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission can deny the LIG the ability to open investigations, issue subpoenas and publish summary reports – even if a violation is found.
State Sen. Jonathon Carroll, D-Northbrook, filed House Bill 4558 to give the LIG more power and make the inspector more independent, free of lawmaker influence. The proposal would allow the LIG to open investigations and issue subpoenas without approval from lawmakers on the ethics commission. Inspectors would also be able to release reports to the public if they find wrongdoing.
Multiple bills have also been advancing to remove an avenue of corruption that lead to Sandoval’s arrest and has seen numerous local officials become the subject of one of the many ongoing federal investigations.
House Bill 322, proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, is up for a floor vote in the state House and would ban red-light cameras in non-home rule communities within eight large counties. Another bill, Senate Bill 2902, sponsored by state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, would ban them in home rule communities statewide.
Red-light cameras have amassed $1 billion in Illinois since 2008. Last September, the FBI and IRS raided multiple suburban village offices in addition to Sandoval’s home and office in search of connections to camera vendor SafeSpeed.
Time for action
A corruption trial in 1869 for a fraudulent contract at City Hall in Chicago began Illinois’ infamous history of corruption. Since then, Illinoisans have watched governors, aldermen and politicians of all stripes walk into prison for abusing the public’s trust. Annually, corruption costs Illinois taxpayers $550 million.
But Illinoisans shouldn’t have to rely on federal prosecutors to prevent abuse of power in Springfield.
Corruptions reforms embodied in these bills would help Illinois lose the title as “nation’s most corrupt state,” and maybe save a fifth governor the title of “felon.”
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