Former Congressman Jerry Costello, from Downstate Illinois, didn’t break any laws when he became a high-paid lobbyist for some of the businesses and special interest groups that asked for and generally received his help with their Capitol Hill agendas.
After a federally mandated one-year “cooling off” period, ex-members of Congress are allowed to lobby their former colleagues.
But Costello may have violated something even more precious to thousands of the Southern Illinois residents he once represented — their trust.
And his actions provide another example of why “revolving door” lobbying restrictions and conflict of interest guidelines need to be tightened at every level from local city councils to the nation’s capitol.
Hundreds of former congressmen and thousands of their staffers have walked through that “revolving door” since 1998, according to watchdog groups that monitor federal lobbyists.
And lobbyists registered with the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois also include several former city aldermen and ex-state legislators.
Lobbying firms, corporations, unions and trade associations are clearly taking advantage of lax ethics rules rife with loopholes.
The result is a blurred line between our legislative bodies, where lawmaking should be carried out in the public interest, and a private sector dominated by money, clout and the expertise of individuals who once made the laws but now influence lawmaking from the outside.
The perception, rightly or wrongly, is that it’s all about self-interest, not the public interest.
The halls of government should be sacred, and the people we elect and appoint to serve within those halls should understand the public trust that’s bestowed on them.
We can never tighten the rules enough to prevent all unethical or illegal activity, so we have to hope that lawmakers and other public officials have enough integrity to avoid relationships that raise questions about their character and their intentions.
Jerry Costello didn’t clear that bar.
As the Better Government Association reported in the Sun-Times recently, after a months-long investigation, he’s being paid tens of thousands of dollars to lobby for Boeing, Scott Air Force base, and the Madison County Transit District — entities that benefitted from his help in Congress.
Retired Illinois congressman getting rich working for special interests that once sought his help in U.S. House – and he’s not the only member of his family getting paid.
And while he was still in Congress, his son was hired to lobby for Boeing; the Illinois Railroad Association, a trade group whose railroad members benefited from legislation then-Congressman Costello helped pass; and the Short Line Tax Policy Coalition, another group his father advocated for in Congress.
Costello is obviously entitled to make a living in the private sector after completing what many regard as a stellar career in Washington.
But when those new paychecks dwarf the ones he got in Congress, and come from special interests that profited handsomely from his actions as a lawmaker, it raises troubling questions.
Costello’s former constituents are justified in wondering whether he spent all those years in Congress fighting for their interests, or positioning himself to cash in later and reward his family members.
The bond he established with his downstate constituents over two-plus decades Congress could have enabled him to ignore the temptation to cash in on his government expertise and connections, but it didn’t.
Another Southern Illinoisan who served in Springfield and Washington offers a different case study in handling a post-government transition.
Just weeks after Paul Simon left the U.S. Senate, he began teaching at Southern Illinois University, where he founded the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, a strong partner of our Better Government Association.
According to federal records, Simon was also registered as a federal lobbyist for brief stints in 1999 and 2001.
But through his work at the institute, he continued his fight for ethical conduct in government, civic engagement and social justice here and abroad.
He was still serving the public.
As we said, Costello isn’t breaking any laws. But he’s probably breaking a lot of hearts in Southern Illinois.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.