May 23, 2013
By Bernard Schoenburg
A good thing is that the website of Sangamon County Clerk Joe Aiello's office has a new feature — the statements of economic interests that nearly 2,000 candidates, elected and other officials of local governments in the county have to file annually are now available.
A bad thing is a statewide problem: answers on most of those forms tell the public little or nothing.
There are eight questions, but the usual answer is “N/A,” or not applicable. In fact, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon's office reports, that’s the answer more than 75 percent of the time.
Perhaps the most specific of the eight questions asks officials to list “the names of any entity from which a gift or gifts, or honorarium or honoraria, valued singly or in the aggregate in excess of $500, was received during the preceding calendar year.”
That can be revealing, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently listed a dozen names or entities that provided him transportation, lodging or, in one case, sports tickets and meals. He got, for example, “transportation” from hedge fund owner Ken Griffin; and was a house guest of music executive David Geffen, as the Chicago Tribune recently reported.
But some questions are more obscure — especially on the local-government version of the form. In asking for any businesses owned at the value of $5,000 or more, for example, it only includes firms that do business with the unit of government for which the official works. That can cut out a big part of the financial picture of public officials.
And because of confusing language of some questions, said Simon, “You can honestly want to disclose and honestly answer every question, and most of them are still going to wind up not applicable.”
Simon has been working to streamline and improve the form to make it more meaningful. It would have six questions that would be identical for state and local officials. There would be clearer requirements — like reporting any financial asset valued at more than $10,000 — which is up from the $5,000 level in the more narrow existing form.
Senate Bill 1361, sponsored by Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, who has worked with Simon on the legislation, passed the Senate 52-1 May 9, but now is in House rules committee.
“We’re working with the House leadership and members of the House to try and make sure that we’ve got something that works,” Simon said this week. “I’m not sure that we’ll be able to get that done during this session. I’m hopeful, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.”
A review of a range of Sangamon County and Springfield city officials shows a bunch of “N/A” answers. Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter's form is more revealing than most, as it lists more than 20 companies in which he has significant stock or ownership.
“I don’t think any of them do business with the county, but it’s just easier to list everything and not worry if you overlooked something,” Van Meter told me.
I don’t think that kind of openness is shared by all.
Meanwhile, Aiello said some clerks fear that the proposed forms would be intrusive enough to keep some citizens away from government service, especially on unpaid boards and commissions. But he said he doesn’t have an opinion on the changes, and his office will handle whatever forms are specified by state law.
As someone who takes the occasional look at disclosure forms of candidates and officials, it sure seems as if change is needed if we want information about who spends public money. As Simon spokeswoman Annie Thompson said, it’s important for people to know if individuals representing them in government have any conflicts of interest.
Forms of officials required to file in Sangamon County are at www.sangamoncountyclerk.com. In the center of the homepage, click on “NEW! Economic Interests Search Site,” to find the forms.
I spoke with Simon at an event where she received a Moxie award from the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault this week, in part for her work last year to pass a bill that imposes a fee on certain adult establishments. Polly Poskin, executive director of the coalition, said the so-called “strip club tax” only applies to clubs that serve alcohol and have nude dancing. There are about 65 or 70 such establishments in the state, she said, and the fee — which ranges up to $25,000 for clubs that take in more than $2 million annually — could yield $1 million to $1.5 million annually to help fund rape crisis centers via the Department of Human Services. This is the first year of the law, so fees will be payable in 2014.