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A slew of ex-state lawmakers face criminal charges, but critics question whether proposed reforms are enough for Illinois’ ‘very vibrant culture of corruption’

A slew of ex-state lawmakers face criminal charges, but critics question whether proposed reforms are enough for Illinois’ ‘very vibrant culture of corruption’

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CHICAGO — Two years into a federal corruption investigation that has led to charges against more than half a dozen current and former Democratic state lawmakers and precipitated the downfall of longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, legislators are scrambling to strengthen Illinois’ government ethics laws.

Proposals include tightening rules for lobbyists, requiring additional financial disclosures from elected officials, giving more independence to the legislative inspector general and prohibiting lawmakers from becoming lobbyists immediately upon leaving office.

But government reform groups, the legislature’s designated watchdog and some lawmakers say the proposals on the table don’t go far enough to fix the problems laid bare by prosecutors in the months since federal agents raided the Capitol office of the late, then-state Sen. Martin Sandoval in September 2019.

The bipartisan push to pass an ethics overhaul before the legislature’s scheduled May 31 adjournment fits a pattern that has played out over and over again in Springfield: a scandal arises and lawmakers promise to address the problems that are exposed, then in most cases stop short of the most robust recommendations for rooting out wrongdoing.

“It remains to be seen if the full package will be strong enough for correcting the very vibrant culture of corruption that exists in the state of Illinois,” said state Rep. Ryan Spain of Peoria, the ranking Republican on a newly formed House ethics committee.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has attributed the November defeat of his signature graduated-rate income tax proposal to opponents’ ability to tap into voters’ overarching distrust in state government. Since the federal investigation came to light, he has made an ethics overhaul one of his top legislative priorities.

But little has been done, and the issue was shelved last year when Madigan and Senate President Don Harmon canceled most of the General Assembly’s spring session during the initial surge of the coronavirus pandemic.

With lawmakers back to work this spring, Pritzker again called for them to pass “real, lasting ethics reform.”

“Restoring the public’s trust is of paramount importance,” the governor said in his February budget and State of the State address. “There is too much that needs to be done. If not for the pandemic, this would have happened last year. With a real legislative session and remote or in-person hearings, we need to get this done.”

As the ongoing federal probe was becoming public in fall 2019, lawmakers approved a measure requiring more disclosures from lobbyists and creating a task force to recommend additional ways to strengthen ethics laws.

Pritzker quickly signed it into law, and the panel began its work in late 2019, only to call off its meetings once the pandemic began. A final report was never issued.

More than a year later, an ethics bill surfaced in the House around midnight on the final day of the January lame-duck session, hours before a new set of lawmakers was sworn in. The bill never made it out of committee.

While some lawmakers have noted that the onetime colleagues who’ve been ensnared in the federal probe have been charged with breaking laws that are already on the books, the wide-ranging investigation has brought attention to a number of issues that make Illinois rife for potential corruption.

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Former Rep. Luis Arroyo, a Chicago Democrat, was arrested in November 2019 and charged with bribing a state senator to support sweepstakes gambling legislation that would have benefited a client Arroyo was lobbying for at City Hall. The alleged bribe is clearly illegal, but Illinois law doesn’t prohibit elected officials from working as lobbyists in other levels of government.

Lobbyists were also in the middle of the Commonwealth Edison scandal, in which the utility admitted to a yearslong bribery scheme to win Madigan’s favor. In its deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office, ComEd admitted to using lobbyists and unregistered “consultants” to funnel off-the-books payments to Madigan allies who performed little or no actual work as part of the bribery scheme.

The investigation cast a spotlight on ComEd’s long-standing practice of hiring former lawmakers and Madigan staffers as lobbyists, who are required to register with the state, and as consultants, who are not.

An ethics package under consideration in the Senate, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ann Gillespie of Arlington Heights, would create a statewide lobbyist registration database covering state, county, township and municipal governments. It would also create a uniform definition of who is a lobbyist that would include consultants who communicate with officials on behalf of a lobbyist or lobbying client to try to influence public action.

“There’s a lot of confusion out there because the city (of Chicago) has one definition and a lot of locals and the counties don’t even have one, then the state has another,” Gillespie said. “We really just need to be looking at this uniformly so that we’ve got the most sunlight on the activities that are happening.”

Gillespie’s plan also would prohibit lawmakers from lobbying local governments on behalf of people or entities who also lobby the state.

Under those rules, Arroyo would not have been able to work as a registered City Hall lobbyist for sweepstakes gaming company V.S.S. Inc. because the company also was registered to lobby the state.

But the proposal would stop short of an outright ban on elected officials working as paid lobbyists at any level of government, something good-government groups — and Pritzker — called for in the wake of Arroyo’s arrest as a way to prevent lawmakers from exerting undue influence.

“Nobody should hold the title of both legislator and lobbyist at the same time,” Pritzker said in his February speech.

Supporters say the proposal allows room for lawmakers who are also lawyers or accountants, for example, to do work for local governments within their professional field without running afoul of lobbyist registration requirements.

Another area where the plan falls short, critics say, is its prohibition on former legislators becoming registered lobbyists upon leaving the General Assembly. The bill would ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for only six months after leaving office, or for the remainder of their current term if they leave within that tenure.

Republican Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove, who supports some of the bill’s provisions, raised concerns that it would allow lawmakers to resign just before the term expires and become lobbyists within days.

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“It shouldn’t be something that would have such a blatant loophole,” Curran said.

Gillespie has promised to fix that issue in an amendment, but Republicans and reform advocates argue that the six-month waiting period isn’t long enough.

Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois, said the measure as written would leave Illinois “at the bottom of the barrel” when it comes to preventing lawmakers from shifting quickly into more lucrative lobbying jobs. By her count, 35 states have one- or two-year revolving door prohibitions for legislators.

“That’s just a half-measure, “she said of the Senate proposal. “The people of Illinois deserve better than that. I think that if other states do this, we should be able to as well. This is not some kind of radical measure. This is something that would put us in the company of the vast majority of other states.”

The proposal also falls short in granting full independence to the legislative inspector general, the person appointed by lawmakers to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by members of the General Assembly and their staff, Kaplan said.

It’s a view she shares with Carol Pope, a retired central Illinois judge who was unanimously chosen as the inspector general in 2019.

Pope and her predecessors have repeatedly called for more independence for the office, which has to get permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission, an eight-member panel appointed by the top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, to open investigations, issue subpoenas and publish reports on investigations that find wrongdoing by lawmakers.

Gillespie said her intention is to allow Pope to open investigations on her own but still require the inspector general to get permission from the ethics commission before releasing reports on lawmakers to the public.

Because the commission is made up of an equal number representatives from both parties, partisan deadlocks can result in reports on lawmakers’ misdeeds being kept from the public. Pope and her predecessors say that has happened several times since the office was created as part of a 2003 ethics overhaul during the scandal-plagued tenure of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“We need some balance if we’re going to have a truly independent oversight mechanism,” Kaplan said. “It just doesn’t make sense to have legislators policing legislators. That’s not how independent oversight works.”

But Gillespie said the ethics commission should be given an opportunity to operate under existing rules under new House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and Harmon, who became Senate president last year. She noted that Harmon for the first time appointed someone who is not a sitting legislator to the panel: Pat McGuire, who left the Senate when his term expired in January.

“It’s a new day. ... I think we need to give it a chance to work,” she said.

While the bill wouldn’t give the legislative inspector general the full level of autonomy those who’ve held the office say is necessary, it would make the position a full-time job with posted office hours — which Pope said would be a waste of taxpayer money. She now works on an as-needed basis.

“Even if you had office hours, there would be a person sitting in the office with nothing to do,” Pope said at a recent Senate hearing “The demand for hours is just simply not there, which is a good thing in my opinion.”

Lawmakers argue that having a full-time inspector general would an important signal to the public.

“While it may not be a good perception to have an office of people that aren’t working full time, I also don’t think it’s a good perception, visual, to have an office that’s closed, that the lights are out, that nobody knows when it’s open either,” Gillespie said at the hearing. “I think it’s important for our residents of Illinois to start to establish trust in their legislature if they know that this is something we’re taking this seriously.”

With just a month remaining in the spring legislative session and an agenda that also includes negotiations over a major energy policy overhaul and a pandemic-era state budget, it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will push through an ethics package.

Rep. Kelly Burke, an Evergreen Park Democrat who chairs the House ethics committee and sits on the Legislative Ethics Commission, declined to comment on specific proposals in her chamber but said she’s waiting for the Senate to send over its proposal.

Burke said she expects lawmakers to approve either one package or “small number of bills” dealing with lobbying, statements of economic interest and the role of the legislative inspector general, among other issues.

“We’ve been putting a lot of work into our hearings and gathering lots of different opinions, and we’re really trying to work to provide some better clarity and stronger ethics laws,” Burke said.


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