December 19, 2012
When Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon was a kid, her father, the late Paul Simon, took government transparency so seriously that he disclosed what she made from her babysitting jobs on his financial disclosure form.
Simon’s plan to get the state’s politicians to disclose more about their financial affairs and entanglements doesn’t go that far (nor should it), but her initiative would be a welcome change over the trickle of information from today’s requirements.
Today’s statement of economic interest form is more about concealment than disclosure. There are eight questions that have to be answered. Of those who must fill out the form because they are legislators, statewide elected officials or high-ranking state employees, nearly 75 percent answer “none” or “not applicable.”
The current form is useful for determining whether someone holds two government jobs, for information on investments that made more than $5,000 in capital gains and not much else.
The form crafted by Simon and the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, has six questions, makes improvements on the current form and adds additional information that has to be disclosed:
* Simon’s form asks for disclosure of assets valued at more than $10,000, regardless of whether they earned capital gains. They would have to be disclosed if they were in the elected official or employee’s name or held by a spouse or a minor child themselves or jointly. Simon believes such a question might have unraveled the scandal involving Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell, who stole $50 million from the town and bought, among other things, a nationally known horse-breeding company.
Crundwell answered “none” to all of the questions on the current form. She would have had to have disclosed the breeding company, Simon believes, which could have led to investigators or reporters asking questions earlier.
* The form would require disclosure of outside employment and sources of income that brought in $2,500 or more per year and the sale of any assets sold above that amount.
* The form requires disclosure of relationships with lobbyists and “sweetheart” loans not available to the general public.
The one weakness in the form is the last question, which asks for a list of gifts valued at more than $500 that did not come from a family member or someone classified as a “personal friend.”
That’s a fairly big loophole and politicians can acquire an awful lot of personal friends in the career they’ve chosen. Simon and Kotowski should amend their bill to exempt only gifts given by family members.
Senate Bill 3941 is a modest improvement over the disclosure requirements that exist today, yet lawmakers probably will still drag their feet.
When it comes to laws that could affect how legislators do business, they too often pass rules for everyone else, but not for themselves. The list is significant. Lawmakers limited the amount of money that people can contribute to political campaigns but exempted their legislative leaders. They also gave themselves generous exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.
The current disclosure requirements have long been inadequate, but the recent alleged financial improprieties of two state lawmakers adds some urgency. It’s time for all Illinois elected officials to disclose basic information about their finances and potential conflicts of interest.