State of the State: Skeptics at a Crossroads, Lawmakers at the Wheel. Which way will they turn?

Apr 1, 2009

Bethany Jaeger
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Momentum is not enough. This state has felt momentum build and bust too many times for everything from education to health care, transportation, construction and, often, ethics. Illinois voters are used to being disappointed.

This spring, however, even skeptics are sensitive to the actions of public officials. Their attitude: Either do something noticeable to change the way government can improve our daily lives, or our attention will turn away as fast as it was recaptured by the high-level corruption and the arrest of Rod Blagojevich.

The opportunity is ripe to enact ethics reforms and keep the skeptics’ attention because losing it would maintain the status quo.

When people aren’t paying attention to government, “it’s easy enough to tie a great big ribbon around any kind of legislative package and say, ‘There, we’ve done it,’” says Cynthia Canary, director of the Chicago-based Campaign for Political Reform.

In fact, that’s what happened in 2003 when federal investigations dogged outgoing Gov. George Ryan and incoming Blagojevich vowed to change “business as usual.” Yet, neither Blagojevich nor his ethics reforms lived up to the hype.

As a result, Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly must clean up existing ethics laws while considering new ones.

In a way, citizens have Blagojevich to thank because his impeachment and removal from office in late January refocused the need for higher standards. On the other hand, Blagojevich’s saga feels so jarring because of the timing. Voters feel insecure about the economy at the same time they’ve lost confidence in Illinois leaders, who are supposed to guide them through the slump. 

The one-two punch of an economic crisis coupled with an integrity crisis demands state government ethics reforms that people will notice. Make them feel as though their votes count and that they have just as much ownership in government as the lawmakers who run it.

When Quinn became governor, he immediately set the tone of government by and for the people. He chartered a new commission to study reforms for elections, state procurement, public access and employee ethics. After three months of public hearings, the panel is expected to release a report this month.

Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan signaled a similar broad approach.

“To me, all of Illinois government is open to change, every agency and everything that we do,” Madigan said when announcing a bicameral committee to study governmental reforms.

More recommendations are coming from a statewide coalition called CHANGE Illinois, consisting of civic, labor, business and nonprofit groups. 

Regardless of how well-researched and sincere the products of the governor’s commission, the legislative committee and the new coalition are, they’re unlikely to satisfy the anti-Blagojevich itch or stamp out the statewide skepticism.

On the other hand, their results should do more than pander to the emotions of people caught up in Illinois’ political drama. They need true ethics reforms with real enforcement measures, and one of the best places to look is in the rearview mirror to see how laws on the books are working — or not.

They should start with enforcing existing laws that grant access to public records and public meetings and with punishing those who violate the law. (See more in Charlie Wheeler’s column in Illinois Issues, March, page 37.)

They also should consider numerous bills now advancing through the General Assembly. But Canary knows firsthand that what goes into the legislature often morphs into something different.

She helped draft the 2008 pay-to-play ban, for instance, which is designed to prevent businesses that hold significant state contracts from contributing to officeholders who sign those contracts. It took three years to advance the measure to the governor’s desk, and it barely survived Blagojevich’s veto pen. In those three years, the legislation took on multiple forms, often at the behest of politics.

“The struggle always is to try your best to at least get the core components to match up,” Canary says.

Now that the pay-to-play ban has been in effect for four months, officials are finding out that recordkeeping and enforcement may still have some kinks, including who is monitoring the reports and ensuring compliance.

According to Canary, the Illinois State Board of Elections lacks the authority and capacity to audit campaign finance reports unless someone from the outside files a complaint, “even if the error is staring them in the face.”

“This is not a proactive way to run a government where you’re placing integrity and honesty at a premium,” Canary says. “This is a way to run a government where you’re actually afraid of what enforcement might yield.”

Legislators also should clean up a state employees ethics law enacted in 2003 when Blagojevich created an independent inspector general for each constitutional office and required all state employees to take annual ethics exams. 

Mary Anderson, a private attorney in Chicago, was a deputy inspector general for the Office of the Executive Inspector General until 2005. She was involved in researching and drafting the 2003 law and worked under Z. Scott, the executive inspector general who wrote a scathing report that said Blagojevich’s administration had “not merely an ignorance of the law, but complete and utter contempt for the law” in agency hiring practices. 

The full report didn’t officially become public until it served as evidence in Blagojevich’s impeachment trial.

Anderson testified to the legislative committee last month that the most serious challenge is the “forced secrecy” of the ethics investigations: “The silence that we hear from these offices is not by their choice. To the contrary, that silence is dictated by statute.”

By law, the investigations and the reports prepared by the inspectors general remain confidential, even when violations occur and when punishments follow.

“By keeping the results of these investigations secret, wrongdoers are allowed to continue on with their corrupt behavior without any consequences,” she said.

Anderson wants complete disclosure of those reports and the actions taken. She cites four states as models:

• New Jersey based its 2005 law on Illinois’ statute but allows the reports to be made public with redacted information.

• In Massachusetts, all reports are public, regardless of whether the inspectors find violations. Employees’ names are withheld if the complaints are unfounded.

• New York’s law allows inspectors to redact information or defer a report’s release until an investigation is complete.

• Ohio is the most transparent. Its reports include employees’ names, regardless of whether they are found guilty, unless a person’s safety is in jeopardy.

Illinois’ 2003 ethics reforms also lack teeth for a so-called revolving door law for state employees, which is supposed to prevent them from taking jobs with private firms that they regulated, licensed or were involved with in granting contracts during the past year.

Most anyone can get a waiver. In fact, the act says the commission “shall” grant waivers unless the employee altered licensing, contracting or regulatory decisions to better his or her chances of getting a job in the private sector. 

There’s rarely a smoking gun that determines a conflict of interest existed, said Chad Fornoff, executive director of the Executive Ethics Commission. “Unless there’s evidence that the employee was influenced by the prospect of future employment, the commission hears only arguments that are favorable to the employee’s petition,” he said. 

Fornoff supports legislation that would eliminate the waiver system, enforcing a one-year cooling off period with no exceptions. The attorney general’s office also backs a measure that would require a list of employees responsible for contracting and licensing decisions, shining a light on potential conflicts.

The faults in existing ethics laws are not specific to the 2003 act; they are simply part of Illinois’ political culture, Canary says.

There is no easy way out, but lawmakers could try to mislead voters into believing that existing laws without enforcement are enough.

True, most of the burden falls on the public to demand a better government, but lawmakers bear a significant burden, too, particularly when citizens are looking for a sign that the state and the country are ready to rebound. 

So as candidates prepare for the 2010 elections, let them seek empowerment through public confidence, not through public manipulation.

One way the CHANGE Illinois coalition wants to embolden voters is by ridding the political system of massive campaign contributions from businesses, political action groups and well-connected individuals at the state and local levels.

But legislative leaders tend to support stricter disclosure requirements for campaign contributions before the imposition of limits, indicating a tough road ahead for the idea this year.

Ann Lousin, who helped write the 1970 state Constitution and who teaches law at at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, shares the idea that sunshine is the best disinfectant. “If I can figure out a way around it in five minutes, you shouldn’t put it into the statute,” she says. 

Individuals could disguise their financial support through friends or relatives, while state contractors could funnel money though subcontractors, which wouldn’t be part of the public record. “All you’re doing is putting it underground,” she says.

Canary says sunshine won’t cut it. “We have had sunshine for over 30 years, and look at the situation we’re in.”

Now is the time for legislators to keep the skeptics’ attention. They shouldn’t test their confidence, or they will lose. Maybe not this year or in 2010, but eventually, when somebody more believable comes along. ❏

 

The one-two punch of an economic crisis coupled with an integrity crisis demands state government ethics reforms that people will notice.

There is no easy way out, but lawmakers could try to mislead voters into believing that existing laws without enforcement are enough.

Bethany Jaeger can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, April 2009