Illinois House moves to adopt tougher ethics laws to curb public corruption

Illinois Capitol News

New ethics plan ‘won’t end corruption overnight,’ but targets ‘most egregious scandals in our state’s history’

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The political corruption capital of the country is cleaning up its act.

Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), a progressive reformer who organized efforts to oust former House Speaker Michael Madigan from his post in January, said Illinois has reached “really a tipping point of mistrust at every level.”

“Our voters don’t trust us, and it’s up to us to restore that,” she said.

The House approved an ethics proposal on Monday night that would increase transparency in financial disclosure forms, outlaw political fundraisers during legislative session, close a ‘consultant loophole’ that allows paid consultants to skirt lobbying disclosure laws, and pro-rate legislator pay to end an “exit bonus” where elected officials could get paid for an entire month for one day of work.

State senator Ann Gillespie (D-Arlington Heights) said the new ethics proposal “takes the first steps in addressing some of the most egregious scandals in our state’s history.”

Several current and former state legislators are under federal indictment, investigation, or have testified before a federal grand jury in recent months. While Madigan has not been charged and has denied any criminal wrongdoing, federal prosecutors charged his longtime chief of staff Tim Mapes with lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice in an indictment filed last week.

A recent study found Chicago led the nation as the “most corrupt judicial district in the nation,” and that Illinois ranked second behind Louisiana as the most corrupt state in the country.

At a Monday press event, suburban state senators acknowledged Illinois’ final ethics reform deal was watered down to to appease the concerns of public officials in Chicago, but they still celebrated the bipartisan compromise as a start to shoring up the state’s poor reputation.

“While it won’t end corruption overnight, it closes many of the loopholes that have allowed bad actors to game the system for decades,” Gillespie said.

However, the final deal would not greenlight statewide grand jury powers for the Attorney General, would not authorize states attorneys to pursue wiretaps on public officials, would not include an outright ban on legislators doubling as lobbyists in some instances, and would not allow statehouse watchdogs to have subpoena power to probe ethical complaints against elected officials — all ideas several reform-minded lawmakers had called for.

Taking those ideas out of the final bill was “something that the House Democrats wanted,” state senator John Curran (R-Downers Grove) said.

The revolving door ban or “cooling off period” that aims to prevent public officials from arranging lucrative lobbying jobs while they’re still in office was reduced to just six months. Other proposals suggested a one or two-year window after leaving the General Assembly or Executive branch.

Representative Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville) called a six-month window a “weak excuse for a revolving door [ban],” since the legislature often concludes its work in May and resumes again in January.

“This bill claims to have a six-month revolving door, but you and I both know you could resign a day early and lobby your colleagues a day later,” Bourne said during floor debate.

Gillespie acknowledged concessions were made in order to get the bill across the finish line.

“The work isn’t done,” she said. “This isn’t the last bill we will do.”

“We still have on the table discussions regarding the expansion of the statewide grand jury,” Curran said. “We think that is critical.”

However, he also highlighted new improvements in the disclosure laws that could increase transparency to illustrate how power players often work in the shadows to advance their agenda.

“Pulling in consultants was incredibly important if we were going to really get a hold of all the influence that happens around here,” Curran said.

A new rule would also require elected officials to publicly report the receipt of any gift worth more than $500.

“If there were lobbyists giving someone $500 gifts, I mean, that’s something that absolutely should be unethical, illegal,” state senator Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake) said. “It just shouldn’t happen.”

Bush also said the final deal fell short in several areas, but said it was a step in the right direction.

“Here’s the thing about legislation,” Bush said. “It has to get through the House and the Senate.”

“If this was my bill, and I could write it exactly how I wanted it and not have people vote on it, it would have been stronger,” she said. “But I think this is a great first step.”

But will the new measure prevent elected officials from using their positions to serve their own interests?

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find a law that somebody doesn’t find a way to work around, but this is a good solid step,” Gillespie said.

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