In the aftermath of bribery charges filed against a state representative, leaders of the Illinois General Assembly offered responses ringing with the typical righteous indignation.
“I have instructed my staff to begin bringing together stakeholders and experts to closely examine our ethics and lobbying laws and find ways to strengthen existing law,” declared House Speaker Michael Madigan in a prepared statement.
Senate President John Cullerton said the Legislature should consider repeating the joint House-Senate review of ethics and campaign finance laws that followed the impeachment and expulsion of Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2009.
You’re not alone if you hear Capt. Renault’s cynical order to “round up the usual suspects” echoing somewhere in the distance.
How hard should it be, after all, for the longest-serving speaker in the history of the House of Representatives to identify the possible touchpoints of corruption and conflict of interest for legislators? And, really, how did it never come to the notice of someone in the Legislature that lawmakers ought not be able to manage companies that provide lobbying services to business clients?
State Rep. Luis Arroyo, who manages the lobbying firm Spartacus 3 LLC, was charged recently with attempting to bribe a state senator to get support for gambling legislation that one of his clients wanted. If true, the legal offense reflected in the charges is obvious. But under any circumstances, the ethical impropriety of permitting a lawmaker to profit from clients who are lobbying him and his fellow legislators is equally clear. Just as clear, in fact, as allowing lawmakers who profit from contesting property tax assessments to write or influence legislation related to property taxes.
Speaker Madigan, of course, is famously a partner in a law firm that specializes in appealing commercial property tax assessments. But he’s not the only Illinois legislator who files such appeals, and just last month the state’s Property Tax Relief Tax Force refused to study the practice or investigate potential conflicts of interest involving it. So, with the federal probes of Illinois lawmakers growing ever more numerous – Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park is facing charges of embezzlement, Chicago Alderman Ed Burke is under indictment and we haven’t yet seen the fallout from raids on the offices of Sen. Martin Sandoval – it’s difficult to take seriously leaders’ promises to fight corruption or establish stronger ethical standards.
If they want to demonstrate some sincerity, they could start, as we urged in August, by closing the revolving door that allows former legislators to immediately become lobbyists. Then, in the House, they could pull HB361 out of the black hole of the Rules Committee. The bill, filed by Naperville Republican Grant Wehrli, increases fines for legislators who violate certain ethical standards, and, surprise, it picked up no fewer than 25 co-sponsors in the past 2 days.
Another House bill, HJR 87, which aims to set up an ethics task force in the wake of the Arroyo charges, surely deserves support in spirit. The precise scope and mission of such an ethics review may be open to discussion, as Cullerton notes, but the need for such a study cannot be denied.
It just has to be imbued with the gravity it deserves. And, it ought to be empowered to identify all potential ethical lapses, not just those that the legal system has conveniently pointed out but also those that any fair-minded person would easily recognize, even if they involve sitting lawmakers and someone as powerful as the House speaker.