November 29, 2012
By Sara Burnett
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — Elected officials will be forced to disclose more information about their financial interests under legislation introduced Thursday that Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said is needed to help restore faith among Illinois residents who've seen their last two governors sent to prison for corruption.
Simon and state Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, said their proposal would overhaul a 40-year-old financial disclosure system that critics have long scoffed at as meaningless. They say it would allow more scrutiny of whether conflicts of interest exist, in part by requiring politicians to fill out more specific forms about their assets and finances.
Simon also said the changes would show residents that most politicians are in their jobs for public service, not "to line their pockets."
"It's better for those who file it, and it's better for those who use it as a source of information," she said during a Thursday press conference.
Kotowski, the bill's sponsor, said he is optimistic that the legislation will pass because Illinois residents want ethics reforms. But he acknowledged that the proposal may meet resistance from some lawmakers, and it will be competing with other matters in the busy final days of the legislative session, which ends Jan. 9.
Thousands of elected officials, high-ranking government employees and candidates are required to file financial disclosure forms each year. The forms are officially known as a statement of economic interest. But they often are referred to as "none sheets" because people typically answer the eight questions about conflicts with "none" or "not applicable."
According to Simon's office, that was the answer on 75 percent of questions on state forms and 85 percent of forms in Cook County.
The proposal introduced Thursday would create a new form that would for the first time ask about outside employment and relationships with lobbyists. It also would require disclosure of any so-called "sweetheart" loans, or loans received under terms not available to other members of the public.
Simon and Kotowski said the new forms also would be easier to understand and include definitions of key terms, making it more difficult for people to say they inaccurately filled it out because the form was vague. The new form also would ask about any assets of $10,000 or more, or outside income of $2,500 or more — questions that aren't on the current document.
The lieutenant governor's office pointed to several examples of officials accused of ethics lapses who were not required to disclose information that may have raised a red flag, but who would be required to do so if the bill becomes law.
They included former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell, who earlier this month admitted embezzling more than $50 million from the town to fund her own lavish lifestyle and a nationally known horse-breeding operation. In her most recent financial disclosure, filled out three months before she was arrested by federal agents, Crundwell answered "none" to all eight questions.
Simon's office believes that under its new form, Crundwell would have been required to disclose assets and the horse-breeding operation.
Previous attempts to change the disclosure system have been unsuccessful. Simon said she believes those efforts failed because they went too far. She said the latest effort does a better job of balancing transparency with privacy. For example, it doesn't ask about whether a person has credit card debt or how much it is.
The penalty for not submitting a form or knowingly filling it out inaccurately includes fines or imprisonment, though Simon said she is not aware of anyone who's been prosecuted.
The bill is SB3941