Ends and Means: Will 2009 be the Year of Sweeping Ethics Reform in Illinois?

May 1, 2009

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
As the General Assembly gears up for a deadline dash to its scheduled May 31 adjournment, conditions cer-tainly seem favorable for uprooting the state’s long-standing culture of political corruption.

Restive citizens haven’t taken up pitchforks and torches yet, but all indications are the populace wants strong action to restore integrity to public service and to put an end to Illinois’ role as the laughingstock of the nation.

The impetus for change, of course, comes from general revulsion at what federal prosecutors labeled a six-year criminal enterprise otherwise known as the Blagojevich administration.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping aspect of the 16-count indictment of the former governor unveiled last month was the assertion that Blagojevich and his cronies began to scheme even before his election in November 2002 to enrich themselves at public expense and divide the booty after he left office.

In other words, even as Blagojevich was portraying himself as the candidate of reform and renewal, an antidote to the ethically challenged George Ryan for a scandal-weary citizenry, he and his fellow conspirators were plotting to make Ryan look like a nickel-and-dime grifter. And for six years, federal prosecutors say, they did so. 

No wonder reform is high on the legislative agenda.

Indeed, in a relatively rare move, the legislature’s two presiding officers, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, are co-chairing a high-profile panel, the Joint Committee on Government Reform, to look into areas such as campaign finance reform, open government, state contracting practices and ethics training. One immediate result of the scrutiny: a new law ousting Blagojevich appointees from state pension boards and imposing stricter disclosure requirements and conflict-of-interest prohibitions on retirement system trustees and other fiduciaries.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Reform Commission named by Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed far-ranging changes, including limits on campaign contributions, enhanced campaign disclosure, an independent state purchasing entity, greater transparency in state procurement decisions and a less-partisan method of drawing legislative districts after each federal census.

All of the ideas have merit; some are more doable than others. Requiring state agencies to follow beefed-up rules in awarding contracts is a no-brainer, and posting more information online about state purchasing decisions and contract awards also seems a safe bet.

Similarly, the state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws likely will be strengthened. Quinn is a longtime champion of open government, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan has made strengthening the existing acts a priority of her office.

Limiting campaign contributions is less likely, though, despite suspicions — some would say Blagojevich offers proof — that the state’s unfettered system feeds corruption. Adopting federal-style limits on donors probably won’t happen, given the strong legislative bias for disclosure over caps and an equally pervasive belief that funding restrictions can be circumvented easily by those intent on pay-to-play.

If those arguments prevail, reform advocates should push for intensive disclosure, including such things as more timely and comprehensive filings, full information about contributors, complete disclosure of entities behind generic-sounding PACs and authority for the State Board of Elections to audit reports, initiate complaints and punish violators. Let’s really let the sunshine in.

As for allowing legislative districts to be drawn by computers — or worse, pointy-headed academics — rather than partisan cartographers, look for pigs to fly first. Settling the maps by chance may seem bizarre, but both major parties have won — and more importantly lost and survived — at the game. Republicans and Democrats alike are comfortable with the system and are hardly likely to trust their respective fates to outsiders.

A careful reader might detect the pattern here. Lawmakers are all for reforming the way the executive branch operates but a lot less enthusiastic about changing legislative practices. Self- serving? Perhaps. On the other hand, federal agents didn’t tape lawmakers scheming to extort campaign contributions from hospital officials and racetrack executives —or auctioning off a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

Whatever reform legislation finally emerges from the spring session — no matter how strong or far-reaching — will not be a panacea. No statute can guarantee honest public service if voters put a scoundrel in office.

Consider Blagojevich’s election to a second term in 2006, despite a host of warning signs that something was amiss. Reporters regularly wrote about “coincidences” in which hiring rules were bent so that contributors could get well-paying jobs, win lucrative state contracts or get plum appointments. 

Auditor General William Holland routinely chastised state agencies for not following the appropriate laws or regulations in doing business, suggesting general incompetence at best, flat-out crooked practices at worst. Even U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald alluded to “endemic hiring fraud” in state employment practices in a letter to the attorney general that summer.

Yet despite the unrelenting bad news, Blagojevich won a second term, outpolling Republican candidate Judy Baar Topinka by more than 367,000 votes, with Green Party hopeful Rich Whitney a distant third. The Democratic incumbent spent almost $29 million, compared with less than $11 million for Topinka, about two-thirds of it for media buys that trashed her unmercifully, virtually portraying the treasurer as George Ryan in drag. His candidacy beset by serious ethical questions, perhaps Blagojevich figured his best hope was to convince voters she was a crook, too, so vote for the one with the best hair.

Had voters paid closer attention to news reports, Holland’s findings, Fitzgerald’s warning and similar misgivings, and less to the incumbent’s onslaught of negative TV spots, the result might have been different.

The lesson seems clear: Clean government requires an engaged, informed electorate able to discern demagoguery and unwilling to reward it. Will 2009 be the year Illinois cleans up its act? Only if future voters uphold their part of the bargain.

 

All of the ideas have merit; some are more doable than others.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, May 2009