As I was perusing the New York Times recently for a national perspective on City Hall’s police travails a headline on another story reminded me the term “systemic corruption” describes much more than law enforcement in Chicago.
The headline read, “U.S. Attorney Says Trials Offer Solutions to a Corrupt Albany.”
Albany is New York’s state capital, and the U.S. attorney is Preet Bharara, who hit a prosecutorial “Daily Double” this year by convicting two top legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, for federal crimes related to influence peddling and pay-to-play.
The issues Bharara raises in the NYT article, and his takeaways from the trials, are as relevant to watchdogs here in Illinois as they are to New York’s corruption-busting prosecutor, who reminds me of Chicago’s former U.S. Attorney, pit bull Patrick Fitzgerald.
Bharara “hammered home the fact that the ability of lawmakers to earn outside income, coupled with a lack of transparency, weak disclosure requirements and the concentration of power in the hands of the few, is hugely problematic.”
Illinois watchdogs, including the Better Government Association, have been voicing that concern for years—powerful legislative leaders controlling the Statehouse for decades while, at the same time, profiting handsomely from lucrative businesses or law practices that intersect with government without having to disclose income or client details.
In an earlier Sun-Times column I cited House Speaker Michael Madigan’s legal practice, which specializes in corporate property tax appeals, and lamented the fact that he only has to list his profession—lawyer—and disclose that he makes more than $5,000 a year, but nothing that could help us flag potential conflicts.
“Good government,” Bharara says, requires major changes in those laws.
The New York prosecutor also points to roadblocks in Albany that undermine legislative ethics committees when they try to investigate New York lawmakers for alleged misconduct, which reminds me of similar impediments Illinois’ legislative inspector general faces in pursuing corruption tips.
That “tells you everything you need to know about the enabling nature of the people in the state legislature,” Bharara says of New York, but he might as well be talking about Illinois.
Lack of transparency and no limits on outside income, he adds, “makes it harder to prosecute the bad apples when every apple is able to be non-transparent about that outside income.”
Bharara says the feds do the best they can but admits “that doesn’t solve the problem any more than curing one patient solves a plague.”
He commends the juries in the New York cases for rejecting a claim we heard ad nauseam in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s trials that Blago’s corruption was simply “politics as usual.”
And his reply to a New York defense lawyer who said prosecutors view politics through “dirty windows” is priceless: “Well, you know what? It turns out it wasn’t only the windows that are dirty.”
This is a prosecutor who gets it.
That’s the “systemic corruption” we’ve been ignoring lately, and the problem Illinois’ legislative leaders haven’t dealt with any more effectively than their counterparts in Albany.
So while we’re putting the heat on City Hall to clean up the Chicago police department, let’s also turn up the burner on Illinois lawmakers to confront another toxic environment that spawns corruption.
It’s not as compelling as a fatal shooting captured on dash-cam video, but it cries out just as loudly for major reforms.