Critics say weak state law prevents public from learning of financial conflicts
June 20, 2011
By Ray Gibson and Joseph Ryan
Illinois public officials from the Statehouse to city and town halls participate in an annual ritual by filing ethics statements to disclose potential conflicts of interest between their government jobs and their personal finances.
Year after year, many of them share a common response on each line of the form: "None."
The fact that so many officials across the state can answer the same way illustrates how weak Illinois' disclosure law is, critics say. To understand the loopholes that have existed in the state's ethics law for decades, you only have to check what happens when officeholders have to fill out a stronger form.
In Tinley Park, 30-year Mayor Ed Zabrocki didn't disclose anything on his state form, but in answers to the village's more stringent requirements he revealed he owns two vacant parcels in a local subdivision.
Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans listed virtually nothing on his state disclosure filing. But on the judicial form required by the Illinois Supreme Court he disclosed 16 economic interests, ranging from Social Security payments to various real estate holdings.
"Obviously the one required by the Illinois Supreme Court is far more comprehensive," Evans said. "They want to make certain there are no potential conflicts of interest."
For many public officials, the state's economic disclosure form they filed this year is the only one they have to submit. The form has remained largely unchanged since 1972, even as other ethics laws were strengthened in response to a parade of public corruption and conflict-of-interest controversies that included the federal convictions of two consecutive governors.
The forms "are so worthless," said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. His group believes more disclosure — whether or not the information reveals obvious conflicts of interest — is warranted because "the public has a right to know where and when officials may be most tempted to abuse their public trust."
Right now the forms may be easier for officials to fill out than for the public to find. Those of local officials are kept at the county level, and in the Chicago area only Cook County has moved to put them online.
In their spring session, state lawmakers took a pass on tougher rules. But Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon has assembled an advisory group and plans to propose legislation by next year to require more disclosure by officials who write laws, pass judgment or shepherd local development.
"Given the black eye associated with past administrations, we need to do more to eliminate real — and potential — conflicts of interest," she said. "Financial disclosures are an ethical road map and can help restore integrity to public service."
Simon makes her tax returns public and had an accountant prepare a detailed list of her assets and liabilities. She also requires her staff to fill out detailed statements listing almost all assets and outside employment.
Simon's father, the late Sen. Paul Simon, also required stricter disclosure of his employees when he served a term as lieutenant governor in 1969. It was about the same time the state's first disclosure laws were instituted under Gov. Otto Kerner, who would later go to prison over a racetrack bribery scandal. Good-government types argued then the requirements didn't go far enough.
"I don't think complete disclosure has ever been popular" with politicians, said Gene Callahan, a former aide to Paul Simon who recalls having to disclose his son's newspaper route on his boss's forms.
The state's "statement of economic interest" forms are filed annually on paper by those in elected office as well as tens of thousands of non-elected decision makers in state and local governments.
The disclosure requirements, which vary slightly by office, are written in arcane language that critics say leaves a lot of wiggle room.
Among the weaknesses they cite: State lawmakers have to identify interests in any entity "doing business" in Illinois — but not those out of state. Local officials only have to list ownership in an entity "doing business with" their local government — but not entities that face local regulation or that contract with neighboring governments.
Likewise, government officials must identify law firms or insurance firms that pay them, but don't have to identify the firm's clients — even if those clients get business from or face regulation by the government.
They also have to name who gave gifts valued at more than $500 — but they don't have to put a dollar amount on the gift or say whether it was a high-priced trip or tickets to a sporting event.
Officials also don't have to disclose debts or actual dollar amounts of their business interests.
Rules for federal lawmakers, judges and a handful of towns are more revealing.
Federal lawmakers must detail the source and amount of all their income, and their spouse's sources of income. They must list all assets and peg a value range to them.
For example, Debbie Halvorson was able to answer "NONE" for seven of eight questions in the state's form while serving as a state Senate majority leader. But as the Crete Democrat ran for Congress in 2008, Halvorson had to disclose on her federal form that she and her husband had more than a dozen assets that together were worth $35,000 to $267,000, including stocks, bonds and savings.
The Illinois Supreme Court requires judges to list the current and former finances of their immediate family, their creditors, and whether they are involved in litigation, among other items.
At the local level, some towns have opted to require stricter disclosure than the state.
Following ethics scandals, Chicago adopted stronger rules, including restrictions on receiving and giving loans and disclosing debts.
In the suburbs, the Tribune reviewed ethics laws for 50 towns, including eight where officials have been convicted of crimes, and found nine with disclosure rules stronger than the state's.
Most of those nine require officials to report more business interests than does the state form. All of them require disclosing local real estate interests. The state requires such disclosure only if the property faced annexation or zoning or if the property brought in a "gain" of more than $5,000.
Those state loopholes are why Zabrocki didn't have to disclose his two vacant subdivision parcels on the state form but did on his Tinley Park form.
Zabrocki said he bought the vacant parcels for $100,000 each from a local developer in 2007, years after the subdivision was annexed. He intended to build a home there, but he has since put the land up for sale. In today's market, he says, he will be lucky to break even.
Tinley Park officials passed their tougher rules in 1996. Zabrocki, a former lawmaker, called the state rules "at best nebulous."
"We felt a stronger transparency was necessary for our community," he said.
But Tinley Park is the exception. Plenty of other towns are fine with the state's weaker rules.
Take Lyons. Mayor Christopher Getty's state disclosure form doesn't list anything. The western suburb doesn't have a stronger local law.
But the Tribune reported late last year that the mayor's insurance company was selling policies to bars in town even though Getty has considerable sway over their business as the town's liquor commissioner.
After the town stalled on related document requests and bar owners went public with complaints, Getty relented and said he would transfer out the bar policies.