Study: Illinois among states prone to lawmakers with conflicts of interest

Study: Illinois among states prone to lawmakers with conflicts of interest

The Land of Lincoln is rich with lawmakers’ penchant for self-enrichment, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity.

The capacity for corruption looms large in the Land of Lincoln. Illinoisans know this – no other state contains residents with a lower trust in state government.

But a recent report from the Center for Public Integrity may confirm their suspicions.

The study delved into the financial interests of roughly 7,000 lawmakers nationwide, seeking to measure the extent to which policymakers advanced laws benefiting their own private interests. In studying each state, reporters combed through state lawmakers’ financial disclosures for calendar year 2015. Where disclosures from 2015 were unavailable, disclosures from the most recent prior year available were substituted.

Three-quarters of state leaders across the country, the study found, moonlight in a separate sector while maintaining their post in public office. While this statistic doesn’t indicate corruption on its own, the scale at which public officials balance jobs in private industry puts in perspective the capacity for ill-intentioned lawmakers to engage in conflicts of interest, absent a robust legal framework.

Building private wealth through public means is a breach of public trust to which Illinoisans have become well-acquainted. This is because conflicts of interest have been allowed to persist without legal consequence throughout the highest – and most visible – rungs of political leadership in the Land of Lincoln.

House Speaker Michael Madigan is perhaps the most noteworthy example of documented conflicts of interest persisting unabated among leadership in the General Assembly.

Madigan is one of the eponymous proprietors of the jointly owned property-tax law firm Madigan & Getzendanner, founded in 1972. The firm, which represents some of Chicago’s biggest developers, appeal clients’ property tax assessments to the Cook County Board of Review. When an appeal is successful, the client takes home a lower property tax bill and Madigan’s firm rakes in a profit. Meanwhile, other Cook County property owners are left to pick up the tab.

A recent investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois found that Madigan’s firm appealed property taxes for more than 4,200 parcels, which accounted for more than $8.6 billion in assessed value. This was more value than any other firm in the county handled, with Madigan’s firm ultimately winning $1.7 billion in assessed value reductions from the Cook County assessor.

It doesn’t hurt that Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios is a longtime Madigan associate. The speaker, in fact, played a role in landing Berrios his job in 2010.

The property tax appeals game in Illinois extends to other political power players as well. Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, 14th Ward, runs Klafter & Burke, a law firm that also represents clients in Cook County property tax appeals.

One problem is that such self-interested entanglements, while unethical, aren’t necessarily subject to legal recourse. While Illinois state law does include statutory conflict of interest provisions, it lacks any concrete mechanism with which lawmakers might be compelled to recuse themselves from voting on measures that would benefit their business interests.

Instead, a lawmaker’s participation in any such vote is left up to his or her own judgement.

As Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, has put it, “the policy is so unclear and leaves so much room for interpretation, that it’s very problematic and any change would be welcome.”

It’s also the case that financial disclosure requirements imposed on Illinois officials are tenuous at best. The Center for Public Integrity report notes, “In Illinois, the disclosure forms are derisively labeled ‘none sheets’ for the answer that invariably follows most questions about economic interests and potential conflicts.” This is due to the lack of concrete financial disclosure requirements.

Throw in Illinois’ lack of term limits and partisan mapmaking, and it seems inevitable that Illinois is home to such low trust in public officials. Don’t expect that to change until lawmakers pursue reforms aimed at further transparency and cutting out conflicts of interest.

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