Illinois lawmakers need a code of conduct that isn't optional
Chicago Tribune Editorial Board
August 27, 2011
"Recently, Randy Erford, the Executive Director of the Legislative Ethics Commission, and I were invited by the National Conference of State Legislatures to speak in Springfield with a visiting delegation of South African legislative leaders on the subject of ethics and ethics reform in Illinois. The NCSL representative informed us that the delegation was especially interested in Illinois due to the general perception held by the delegation that our state stands out as being one of the more corrupt."
—Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer, in an Aug. 10, 2011, letter to the General Assembly
In a letter brimming with frustration, that passage stands out. Half a world away, Illinois government is regarded as a case study in corruption. Presumably, our South African guests were looking for advice on how to scrub a government clean. Judging from the rest of Homer's letter, they didn't get it.
The purpose of the inspector general's letter was to lobby Illinois lawmakers to strengthen the state's 1967 ethics act, which spells out a code of conduct for legislators but provides no penalties for those who don't follow it.
The code basically says lawmakers shouldn't seek or accept benefits that are meant to influence their public actions, or that appear to do so; that they shouldn't intervene with a state agency on behalf of a business associate or financial supporter; that they should be aware of conflicts of interest and abstain from debate or voting when appropriate, etc. etc. etc.
All of that makes us want to bang our heads on the desk because we know about the legislative scholarship racket and the University of Illinois clout list and the cozy little triangle that included the House speaker and Senate president, both tax attorneys, and their lobbyist pal who also sat on the panel that decides property tax appeals in Cook County … and all the other things for which Illinois is famous all the way to South Africa.
The independent commission that developed the code said violations should be made public and those who commit them should be subject to censure. But lawmakers blew off those recommendations. Instead of sanctions, they added a get-out-of-jail-free disclaimer: The ethical principles outlined in the code "are intended only as guides to legislator conduct and not as rules meant to be enforced by disciplinary action." In other words, they're just suggestions.
In the 44 years since the law was enacted, it has proven to be "weak medicine indeed," Homer wrote, because violations "result in no remedial actions whatsoever."
Or as Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, told the Tribune's Ray Long: The worst that can happen is "somebody's going to make an ugly face at you."
Franks said he's going to sponsor legislation based on Homer's recommendations. Those include prohibiting lawmakers from voting on legislation if they have a conflict of interest, requiring them to make more of their financial matters public and subjecting them to censure for unethical behavior.
"Legislators should be precluded from profiting in any way from their legislative initiatives and action," Homer wrote.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, meanwhile, spent her summer working with watchdog groups to prepare legislation that would require public officials to provide meaningful information about their economic interests. Simon and the watchdogs want lawmakers, constitutional officers and high-ranking public employees to disclose income sources, debts, business relationships and other information that would reveal possible conflicts of interest.
The current forms are "a waste of paper," according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Most officials duck every question with the words "not applicable," and the law's wording is so vague that they get away with it.
Better disclosure won't mean much, though, unless the General Assembly adopts a code of conduct that isn't itself a waste of paper. The inspector general is right: "These rules should not be merely aspirational goals." We've all seen how well that works.