Illinois passes ethics package, first step in reforming culture of corruption

Illinois passes ethics package, first step in reforming culture of corruption

Illinois made an important first step in its break with the corrupt practices that defined the legislative process under former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. New ethics rules about lobbying, financial disclosures and the legislative watchdog were passed in the final hours of the session.

It wasn’t exactly an exorcism, but the ghost of Mike Madigan faded a little more when state lawmakers passed new ethics rules for themselves.

There were some solid advances in the bill, but there was also room for improvement and a promise to keep working on some provisions before Senate Bill 539 would take effect Jan. 1, 2022, if signed into law. The bill was improved from earlier versions and incorporated many measures advocated by Illinois Policy.

“I share Sen. Gillespie’s belief that this is a significant piece of legislation,” said state Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, one of the bill’s chief sponsors. “There are issues that have come up over the years that this bill will address. We agree. We are not done. There are more steps and we look forward to working with you and your colleagues.”

The Illinois Senate then unanimously concurred with changes early on June 1. The Illinois House approved the bill 113-5 the day before.

The bill bars lawmakers, executive constitutional officers, and elected officials of units of local governments from being employed as lobbyists while in office under certain circumstances. It also mandates lawmakers must wait six months before becoming lobbyists if they leave in the middle of a term, although they can lobby a new General Assembly immediately after their terms expire. The Illinois Policy Institute has recommended at least a year cooling-off period to bring Illinois in line with other states.

The legislative inspector general now has power to open investigations into complaints without the prior approval of lawmakers on the ethics commission. Probes must begin within a year of the incident. The same change was made regarding the executive branch’s inspector general, allowing investigations without prior approval of its oversight panel.

Lawmakers are required to provide expanded financial disclosure documents, however they are not required to disclose the interests of close family members except for those assets and liabilities held jointly with the filer. The Institute recommends a provision to include immediate family members to avoid loopholes that could allow lawmakers to hide conflicts of interest. Assets and debts worth at least $10,000 and income sources over $7,500 must be disclosed under the bill, with inflationary adjustments every five years.

The ethics bill is a start at changing Illinois’ culture of corruption, ranked the nation’s second-worst. That distinction keeps nearly 79,000 people in poverty and cost each Illinoisan $830 from 2000 to 2018.

State lawmakers pledged reforms after ousting former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan in January. Madigan’s legacy of backroom deals and corruption is still being probed by federal investigators, with his former chief of staff indicted May 26 in connection with the ComEd bribery scandal.

“Voters have demanded changes to reform public corruption that stop lawmakers from playing by different rules than everyone else. The passage of this bill is a start to delivering on the basic anti-corruption measures they deserve,” said Amy Korte, the Institute’s vice president of policy.

“Many components of this ethics package are reforms we have supported for years. Not only should Gov. J.B. Pritzker sign the bill into law, lawmakers should keep finding ways to make Illinois fairer,” Korte said.

The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, said adjustment can still be made before the bill takes effect Jan. 1.

Correction: Earlier versions of this article inaccurately stated the wait period before former state lawmakers could return to the Statehouse as lobbyists.

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