Dillon: Let’s Get Back to Business on Ethics Reforms

A lot of questionable behavior by public officials is perfectly legal in Illinois. That's because the state has some of the weakest ethics laws in the nation.

Good government advocates (including BGA Policy Director Marie C. Dillon, right) testify before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform in February. (Blueroomstream)

When Republican lawmakers called for hearings to explore Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s conduct in relation to a bribery scheme involving the state’s largest utility, Madigan vehemently denied any wrongdoing, as he has all along.

Commonwealth Edison has admitted it provided do-nothing jobs, vendor contracts and other perks to Madigan allies with the intent of influencing legislation sought by the utility.

But federal prosecutors haven’t drawn a straight line between those transactions and the speaker. He hasn’t been charged. And Madigan’s angry response to the GOP inquiry included this observation: “The law does not prohibit members of the General Assembly from making job recommendations.”

He’s right; it’s not against the law. But a legislator making job recommendations to a regulated utility doesn’t pass the smell test, either. And that should matter a lot to members of the General Assembly as they renew their work on ethics reforms that were set aside because of COVID-19.

The U.S. Attorney’s investigation is our periodic reminder that Illinois has some of the weakest ethics laws in the nation.

It wasn’t against the law for Madigan and other politicians to meddle in personnel matters at the Metra commuter rail system, or to pressure the University of Illinois to put their friends at the front of the line for admissions.

But Metra and the U of I — like ComEd — rely on the General Assembly for financial and legislative support, and they clearly felt it was prudent to say yes.

The U of I went so far as to maintain a special admissions track for well-connected applicants, hundreds of whom got special consideration thanks to their political patrons. Madigan sponsored 43 of them in five years, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2009.

Decades of political interference in hiring and promotions were documented by a state task force after Metra CEO Alex Clifford said he was forced out for resisting such requests. The 2014 report said Madigan didn’t just recommend candidates — “he in effect decided they were hired.”

No laws were broken. (Do you see a pattern here?) But public anger led to the resignations of six Metra trustees, seven U of I trustees and the university president and chancellor. Both Metra and the U of I adopted rules to document and report such contacts with lawmakers.

It’s fair to say the public is also unhappy with the arrangement described by ComEd, regardless of how many players end up charged with crimes. The Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform needs to address it. But how?

Instead of an outright prohibition on lawmakers recommending job candidates, the law should require public disclosure of communications regarding university admissions or hiring and promotions at state agencies. Similar requirements could extend to regulated industries — public utilities, casinos, hospitals or cannabis, for example — or even to all entities registered to lobby the state.

Such rules wouldn’t stop anyone intent on committing a crime, but they would set boundaries for ethical behavior. That would be an important step.

The Better Government Association has developed an agenda for state ethics reform, based on the commission’s hearings, the findings of previous ethics commissions, recommendations from current and former legislative inspectors general and other research. Among the proposals:

  • Require greater disclosure of legislators’ potential conflicts of interest and provide firm guidelines on what to do when conflicts arise.
  • Prohibit lawmakers from lobbying other governments on the side; enforce a two-year cooling off period before an ex-lawmaker can become a lobbyist; and require consultants, strategists and other middlemen to register as lobbyists.
  • Overhaul the dysfunctional oversight system. Empower the Legislative Inspector General to act independently of the Legislative Ethics Commission, and reconfigure the commission to eliminate partisan gridlock.

Also needed are measures that would check the consolidation of power in the hands of legislative leaders.

As House speaker and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, Madigan controls which bills get passed, how campaign finance money is distributed and how legislative districts are drawn.

This outsize power comes at the expense of voters, leaving them little ability to hold their representatives accountable.

To put voters back in charge, Illinois needs

  • Term limits for legislative leaders.
  • Special elections to fill legislative vacancies, so voters — not party leaders — pick their representatives.
  • Independent redistricting, so voters pick their representatives instead of the other way around.

You can read the BGA’s complete agenda here.

This column was published in the State Journal-Register.

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