Ethical Dilemma: Illinoisans care about public corruption

Nov 1, 2003

On so many levels, voters can be indifferent. In presidential elections, barely half show up at the polls. As for state government, a recent survey released by the National Conference of State Legislatures finds that more young adults can name the hometown of the fictional Simpsons than the political parties of their governors. And in Illinois, school boards and city councils nearly always meet before seas of empty chairs.

But Illinoisans do care about political corruption. They don’t like it. Most think it’s widespread in state government, and worsening. They think law enforcement turns a blind eye when confronted with allegations of wrongdoing. And, most important, they think tougher state laws are the best way to attack the problem.

Those views, confirmed by a University of Illinois at Springfield poll conducted in April and May, represent a timely context over how best to take a scrub brush to the corridors of state government. Apart from whether Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s budget cuts or his partial veto of death penalty reforms will be overridden, debate over a legislative response to the five-year-old federal corruption probe of former Gov. George Ryan’s associates ranks among the most interesting story lines in this month’s fall legislative session.

After failing to reach consensus last spring on an ethics package, Blagojevich, the other constitutional officeholders and the legislative leaders are taking another crack at finding a way to better police government misconduct. The key players are optimistic a deal can be struck to produce one of the most sweeping changes to state ethics laws. But then again, the past has sometimes shown the end product of such debates to be do-little plans geared toward padding election-year campaign resumes.

“It shocks me that this has been like pulling teeth to get somewhere,” says Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, one of several parties at the negotiating table this fall. “I just can’t believe you could have 60-plus indictments and 50-something convictions and not have any kind of affirmative solution enacted by the state. I don’t think the public will stand for it.”

Within his first few days as governor, Blagojevich challenged legislators to send an ethics package to his desk. 

On the spring session’s next-to-last day in May, the House delivered by unanimously approving a sprawling, bipartisan ethics plan crafted by House Minority Leader Tom Cross, an Oswego Republican, and House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat. The package created ethics commissions for the executive and legislative branches and inspectors general for all of the constitutional offices and the General Assembly. These officials were charged with investigating and adjudicating wrongdoing before it becomes a matter of concern to federal prosecutors. A $75-a-day cap was placed on wining and dining of state officials by lobbyists. And limits were put on free golf and tennis outings for state officials. A hotline was mandated to handle tips on misconduct.

In the 24 hours that followed House passage, though, Senate President Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat, refused to call the measure and moved a scaled-back version that included many of the House components but not the items that were most important to watchdog groups. Gone were ethics commissions and inspectors general. There would be no hotline for ethics complaints. Golf and tennis were removed from the table, as was the ceiling on freebie food for state officials.

With the spring session perilously close to overtime, it became a matter of take-it-or-leave-it. The Senate version was approved in that chamber by a 56-1 margin and was voted on the same day in the House, which signed off on the watered-down plan unanimously. But before the paperwork had moved from the General Assembly to the governor’s office, Blagojevich promised an amendatory veto. In August, he made good on that pledge, and in stunning fashion.

Traditionally, and by constitutional mandate, state representatives and senators are the ones who write legislation. Governors are the ones who enact bills or veto them. In seeming defiance of this understanding, Blagojevich used 11,317 of his own words to retool the Senate-crafted ethics bill. His amendatory veto moved the measure closer to the Cross-Madigan plan with a few new twists.

“The ethics bill passed in May needs substantial improvement,” Blagojevich wrote lawmakers in his amendatory veto message. “It lacks certain fundamental components present in states with respected ethics laws, such as an ethics commission. It lacks enforcement mechanisms.”Blagojevich reinserted language 

creating an ethics commission and an inspector general for his office and agencies under his control, though not for the legislature. He called for inspectors general for other statewide officeholders with the caveat that those investigators would report not only to their respective constitutional officers but to the inspector general he would appoint to oversee his office.

Blagojevich also toughened prohibitions against the use of public service announcements, such as organ donor ads by the secretary of state or ads promoting college savings programs by the state treasurer, if the officeholder is named, shown or heard. The legislature barred such ads only before elections. Further, the governor reinstituted the $75-a-day lid on free food from lobbyists and allowed golf and tennis freebies only by charitable groups.

Blagojevich urged lawmakers to accept his changes, but he expressed a willingness to talk before the General Assembly reconvenes. At the same time, the governor held a stick over the legislature’s head. If lawmakers don’t comply with his demands for a tough ethics plan, he said, he will call a special session in December, holding lawmakers hostage over the holidays as a way to pressure them to sign on to his proposal.

No one can deny the importance of ethics reform to Blagojevich, who on an almost daily basis strives to distance himself from the corruption of the Ryan years. Indeed, it can be argued Blagojevich owes his existence as governor to his pledge to clean up state government. The same can be said for the Democrats, who run the legislature and all but one key statewide office.

But the gravity of the issue could be overshadowed by the chutzpah Blagojevich employed in sending a “flawed” piece of legislation back to the General Assembly. His move spurred an outcry as loud as any heard during an unusually contentious spring session. The Senate president’s office immediately put out word that Blagojevich overstepped his constitutional authority and trampled on the legislature’s domain, a view the House speaker and several rank- and-file lawmakers still share.

“Somewhere along the line, we as a legislature cannot give up our constitutional rights and allow the executive branch to continue to rewrite legislation that we have already passed in our infinite wisdom through compromise. For one man to impose his will on the rest of the body is giving up our constitutional rights,” fumes Sen. Denny Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat who voted for the Senate-inspired plan, seemingly with his nose pinched. “The ethics legislation we passed, with or without his veto, is a piece of crap. 

“It doesn’t do anything. It’s all a big piece of show. The more important issue is whether we as a legislature allow a governor to rewrite the state Constitution.”

Lawmakers weren’t the only source of resistance to Blagojevich’s amendatory veto. Several constitutional officers balked at his provision to set up an inspector general for each of their offices and make those positions partly accountable to a “super inspector general” the governor himself would appoint. Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Secretary of State Jesse White and Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka — who compared the freshman governor to Napoleon — all expressed concern about that framework. White and Topinka also decried efforts to clamp down on public service ads.

The breadth of these rebukes left backers of the original ethics plan in a fog as to what happens next. “I understand there are questions pertaining to the legality of a governor putting sweeping reforms into legislation,” says Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat and the lead Senate sponsor of the measure Blagojevich rewrote. “But, basically, what he’s done is recapture what was in the original bill. It’s not like this bill has never come before the General Assembly before, because it has. With one or two changes, it’s almost exactly what the House passed in May. It’s my hope we won’t be looking at technicalities as reasons not to debate this bill in its entirety.”

The turmoil created by Blagojevich’s maneuver threatened to unravel a spring’s worth of deliberations over ethics. When word surfaced the governor intended to rewrite the measure, two respected legislative retirees with clout in high places intervened to try to salvage something.

Former state representative and White House counsel Abner Mikva and former state senator and comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, both Chicago Democrats who served on Blagojevich’s and Lisa Madigan’s transition committees, volunteered to become artisans of shuttle diplomacy between the feuding parties. “You could see that it was floating away,” Netsch says. “I said there’s no way there’s that much difference between all of these folks, and I believed and still believe they genuinely want a good, strong ethics bill. It doesn’t make sense some disconnect would maybe scuttle it.”

Netsch and other players in the negotiations believe a deal on a strong ethics plan will be brokered before lawmakers leave Springfield. To that end, in mid-October Blagojevich showed a willingness to bend on one of his chief priorities, a governor-appointed “super inspector general” with oversight capabilities over other inspectors general.

For his part, Blagojevich told reporters during an October visit to the capital he intends to press for a gubernatorial-appointed “super inspector general” with oversight capabilities over other inspectors general. Such a structure, the governor said, might have averted the corruption in Ryan’s secretary of state office, where Ryan’s inspector general, Dean Bauer, covered up criminal wrongdoing to protect his boss. Blagojevich said he wouldn’t let that issue be the only impediment to an ethics deal.“We think a super inspector general is important. Is that the deal breaker? I’ll have an open mind to some of the fears and concerns some other constitutional officers might have,” the governor said. 

In the legislature, the House speaker and the Senate president also have been quiet about their plans on the matter, though a spokesman for the speaker says Madigan would like to steer the debate toward the language contained in the first House-passed bill.

In mid-October, Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson of Greenville weighed in, suggesting that unpaid gubernatorial advisers should be required to file economic disclosure statements and that aides to all constitutional officers should be required to file timesheets.

Others involved in the talks believe a general understanding has emerged and that no action will be taken on Blagojevich’s amendatory veto — this to discourage the governor from future top-to-bottom rewrites of legislation. If an ethics package is to be approved this fall, some sources say, it likely will be in the form of a new measure.

“It’s important enough for me that I won’t play politics,” says Cross, who, like Blagojevich, shot out of the gates last spring by making ethics one of his chief priorities. 

“I’ll work with the speaker to make sure we get something passed. If the speaker says he won’t call the bill because the governor has gone beyond his bounds, then I’ll look at a trailer bill option. I’ll do whatever is realistic and prudent, given my position. I just want it to pass.”

There may be other incentives for lawmakers to sign on to reforms. Blagojevich isn’t the only politician who could reap an image boost from passing a strong ethics package. In the past year, federal investigators in Chicago and Springfield have subpoenaed the offices of Madigan, Jones and Topinka in an apparent effort to find evidence of politicking on the state’s dime. No charges have been lodged nor specific allegations raised.

The systemic focus on misdeeds in state government that grew out of the federal investigation of Ryan’s administration is underlined by the results of the University of Illinois at Springfield’s survey, which indicated the public is looking for action. Seventy-six percent of the poll’s 600 respondents, surveyed at the tail end of the legislature’s spring session, described corruption as widespread in state government. More than half believed corruption at the state level has broadened in the past eight years and nearly 70 percent stated that law enforcement tends to look the other way when confronted with allegations of corruption.

There seemed to be broad public support in the poll, conducted by UIS researcher Richard Schuldt, for some of the ideas on the table in the veto session. For example, 88 percent of the respondents said they believed setting up an independent inspector general to investigate misconduct would reduce corruption “some” or “a lot.” Eighty-four percent said the same thing about establishing an ethics board. And even more, 91 percent, saw promise in opening and promoting a hotline to report unethical behavior.

That roughly two in three Illinoisans in the poll believe tougher anticorruption laws are needed should serve as notice to those involved in the talks to set egos aside and follow the public’s cue — if for no other reason than political self-preservation.

“On the campaign trail, the governor, attorney general and lots of legislators were all talking about ethics,” Canary says. “There is going to be a demand that some action now follow all that talk.” 

Dave McKinney is Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times

Illinois Issues, November 2003