State of the State: Here we are again, facing what some call a crisis in ethics

Apr 1, 2005

Pat Guinane
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Frequent visitors to the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee have heard Chairman John Cullerton's stock joke. Legislators should not suggest increasing the penalty for a criminal offense more than one level because, as the punch line goes, they have to leave work for future General Assemblies.

As Cullerton's quip implies, law- makers like to be considered tough on crime. But when it comes to policing themselves, running out of work has never been a concern.

So it's natural for a cloud of suspicion to form when someone suggests Illinois might bridge the ethics gap in a single bounding leap. That someone is Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has promised to "rock the system" with an omnibus ethics reform package. 

The governor's aides were still crafting the legislation in late March, while some observers were speculating that the eventual offering might be big enough, intentionally, to collapse under its own weight. Cumbersome or not, the ethics package could be waiting for legislators when their two-week spring break ends in early April. 

Last month, House Speaker Michael Madigan offered a simpler solution: The governor could return campaign contributions he received from firms doing business with the state. The suggestion was made during a meeting between Blagojevich and the legislative leaders only days after the governor told reporters he was putting together an ethics proposal.

The impetus for reform, as Madigan asserted, were news reports linking campaign contributions to state contracts. A Chicago Sun-Times analysis found that 20 companies with state contracts worth more than $365 million had contributed $925,500 to Blagojevich's campaign fund. And a Chicago Tribune review found that state work went to one-fourth of businesses or individuals who had donated at least $50,000 to the governor's political fund.

Shortly after those reports, campaign finance reform measures began stacking up in Springfield. Each had its own nuance, but the unifying thread was clear. They seek to end the correlation between contracts and campaign cash. The prospective reformers admit a correlation doesn't necessarily equal cause and effect, but stress the need to end the perception that contractors must pay to play in Illinois. In doing so, the reformers have taken dead aim at Blagojevich because any sitting governor is responsible for the bulk of the contracts issued by the state. In this case, they're also taking on a politician with just under $10.4 million in his campaign coffers.

First out of the box was state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who, like Madigan and Blagojevich, is a Chicago Democrat. Hynes wants to prohibit contractors with at least $25,000 in state work from contributing to state officials responsible for awarding contracts the firm is pursuing. It would only apply to seated officials, meaning re-election efforts could not be funded by firms doing business with that official. The measure also would require that campaign contributions be disclosed anytime a firm bids on a contract worth more than $10,000. Hynes immediately issued an executive order applying the provisions to his office. He went a step further by banning firms that do more than $10,000 in business with the comptroller's office from contributing to his campaign fund.

Hynes' proposal drew support from state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Secretary of State Jesse White, Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

"The public deserves to know how its money is being spent and that state contracts are being awarded on merit rather than political connections," says Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Just days after Hynes' announcement, Republicans touted reform efforts of their own. Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican, would prohibit officeholders from issuing no-bid contracts to firms that have contributed campaign cash.

"State contracts, especially those issued without any competitive bidding requirements and funded with taxpayer dollars, should not be used to repay political favors," Brady said, unveiling the plan at the same press conference where he tested the waters for a possible run in the 2006 gubernatorial primary.

It's not yet clear whether Brady would be lining up to take on Blagojevich. The governor hasn't said whether he'll seek re-election. He can hold off on that decision until the State Board of Elections' filing deadline in December.

Suburban Republican Sens. Christine Radogno, Kirk Dillard and Peter Roskam followed up Brady's announcement with a bevy of bills, including the "Responsible Public Contracting Act." And, as Brady did, they took swipes at Blagojevich.

The act would put strict limits on "sole source" and "emergency" contracts that are not subject to competitive bidding. The GOP group highlighted a handful of contracts that were awarded or increased using those methods. But Central Management Services, the department that administers the bulk of state contracts, says the use of soul-source contracts has dipped slightly under Blagojevich. According to CMS, 537 such contracts were issued last year, compared to 568 in 2002 and 604 in 2001. 

Senate Republicans also are calling for greater disclosure of campaign contributions made by businesses and their executives and would impose strict deadlines for making new state contracts public. In addition, they would give the comptroller and treasurer joint authority to tear up contracts that violate the new provisions. 

The Senate GOP is offering seven other reform measures, including one that would ban public officials from using such state resources as bodyguards or vehicles on out-of-state trips that include any aspect of campaign fundraising.

Blagojevich's prolific fundraising has involved courting out-of-state contributors. And it should be no surprise that some ethics proposals are as much about politics as they are about good government. That, of course, is why all eyes are on the governor.

The proposals we've seen so far are largely aimed at the executive branch. Blagojevich promises a more compre-hensive offering, which likely means legislators will have a tough pill to swallow themselves if they're really serious about curbing perceived abuses in state contracting.

Shortly after media reports, campaign finance measures began stacking up in Springfield. They seek to end the correlation between contracts and campaign cash.

Illinois isn't labeled the Wild West of campaign finance for nothing. The same loose policies that Blagojevich is stockpiling campaign cash under have benefited the Illinois Democratic and Republican parties, which, in turn, bankroll legislative races.

Separate from state contracts, none of the reform proposals put forth thus far would limit how much an individual, corporation or organization can contribute to a candidate or political organization. And no one's talking about the unfettered ability to move cash from one campaign account to another, which gives legislative leaders and party officials huge sway in legislative elections and, some suggest, in how legislators behave once they're elected.

And what about once they leave? Three recently retired legislators can now be found lobbying their former colleagues on behalf of various interests. That's perfectly legal in Illinois, although two years ago lawmakers approved stricter "revolving door" restrictions to prevent bureaucrats who leave state government from immediately joining industries they had been regulating.

The "landmark" ethics reform legislation that Blagojevich signed in December 2003 grew out of the federal investigation into former Gov. George Ryan. There was plenty of praise to go around after lawmakers created inspectors general and ethics commissions to watch over the executive and legislative branches, barred lobbyists from serving on state boards and prohibited state officials from accepting free golf games and pricey meals (greater than $75).

But here we are again, facing what some argue is another ethics crisis in Illinois.

"What I found puzzling or troubling about ethics reforms of the past," Hynes says, "is somebody who may want a state contract or some action taken at the agency level — they can't buy you a dinner or take you golfing, but they can write you a $100,000 check."

That discrepancy, Hynes says, feeds the perception that Illinois is a "pay to play" state where the politically active get their backs scratched by state officials who control how taxpayer dollars get spent.

Hynes says his proposal isn't aimed at any current state officeholder. But the GOP is more than willing to take shots at Blagojevich. After all, he's the leading Democratic candidate for governor in 2006, and he has a $10 million head start on whoever emerges from the Republican primary.

It's obvious Blagojevich is a tremendous fundraiser — he solicited $26 million in campaign cash to get to the governor's mansion. It remains to be seen whether he's playing fast and loose with state contracts, as Republicans allege. Either way, the perception has been enough to cause this latest ground-swell of reform. But it was Blagojevich, too, who rode into office as a reformer determined to clean up state government. It will be interesting to see how far his ethics reforms reach into the dark corners of Illinois government and politics. Cleaning up the state's system of campaign finance is by no means an overnight job, and too much disinfectant at once could end up killing any ethics effort in the legislature. 

So, in the interest of actually adding some new reforms to the books, Blagojevich might have to leave some work for future General Assemblies.

 

Pat Guinane can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com

Illinois Issues, April 2005