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After the Madigan charges, Democrats lack an appetite for new ethics reform this spring

Then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, at the Illinois State Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, in Springfield. After federal prosecutors indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan, there's little appetite in Springfield for more ethics reforms this spring.

SPRINGFIELD — The day a 22-count federal corruption indictment came down against former Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, those controlling Illinois’ state government quickly reacted to the horrors of the racketeering and bribery allegations.

Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker called the charges “deplorable and a stark violation of the public’s trust” and touted how state ethics laws had been “tightened” on his watch. Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, called the allegations “disturbing.”

And Democratic House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch appeared before cameras following Madigan’s indictment and said that both ethics and corruption “have to be taken seriously” at the statehouse.

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Despite all of those still-fresh superlatives of shock and outrage, the chances of Democrats pushing through a new round of post-Madigan indictment ethics reforms appear bleak at the moment, with less than three weeks left before the scheduled end of the Legislature’s spring calendar.

Lauding an ethics package already passed last September, neither Harmon nor Welch signaled any short-term interest in looking for new Madigan-centric things to fix in the state’s legislative ethics statutes before the fall elections.

“Less than a year ago we approved sweeping, bipartisan reforms in an attempt to address many of the problems we’ve all seen,” Harmon said in a statement. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done, and I hope that it will truly make a difference both in practice and perception.”

But a top government reform group and a former state legislative watchdog say what lawmakers did last year on ethics is not nearly enough and that more stringent safeguards are needed to confront legislative conflicts of interest and other misconduct that have been adding to the federal prison population.

In a state with an intractable global reputation for corruption, Madigan’s indictment represented the biggest headline of its sort since the federal conviction of former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich on 17 counts of wire fraud, extortion and conspiracy to solicit bribes in 2011.

The case against Madigan centers, in part, on allegations of bribery laid out in a 2020 deferred prosecution agreement between U.S. Attorney John Lausch’s office and Commonwealth Edison over the utility’s efforts to advance its legislative agenda by wooing the speaker with no-work jobs for Madigan political operatives.

His indictment also outlined an alleged scheme, caught on federal wiretaps, in which Madigan allegedly offered to help a developer gain access to vacant state property in Chinatown in exchange for a commitment that the developer steer property-tax appeal work to the ex-speaker’s law firm.

Madigan has denied wrongdoing.

“Throughout my 50 years as a public servant, I worked to address the needs of my constituents, always keeping in mind the high standards required and the trust the public placed in me,” he said after the indictment. “I adamantly deny these accusations and look back proudly on my time as an elected official, serving the people of Illinois.”

His objections notwithstanding, the charges against Madigan are the latest major anti-corruption headlines federal prosecutors have dropped on the state Capitol. Four sitting Illinois lawmakers, excluding Madigan, have been convicted on federal charges in just the past two years alone.

It all is leaving government reformers clamoring for more ethical guardrails, not just what lawmakers chose to pass last year.

“It’s a crisis, and it’s a crisis for Illinois’ reputation as a state and for the confidence of Illinois residents in their government,” said Alisa Kaplan, executive director for the nonpartisan watchdog group Reform for Illinois.

“Absolutely, there should be a big push for stronger ethics reform. I don’t think we’re seeing it. I don’t think we’re seeing the leadership that we need to see in the Legislature or from the governor’s office on this issue,” she said.

Past efforts at reform

Harmon, Welch and aides to Pritzker point to not one, but two, sets of ethics reforms passed since the July 2020 deferred prosecution agreement with ComEd was made public.

Last September, lawmakers and Pritzker gave their blessing to a package that bans legislators from lobbying other units of government, enhances economic-interest disclosures required of state officials and imposes a six-month ban on lobbying by lawmakers once they leave office, among other things.

Also that month, Pritzker signed an energy omnibus sought by ComEd’s corporate parent, Exelon, that included ethics provisions, though those wound up being overshadowed by several major green energy components of the bill.

Among the utility ethics steps were requirements that lawmakers disclose any family members employed by utility companies, that state regulators delve into potential refunds for consumers from the ComEd debacle, and that utility-hired lobbyists be barred from doling out lobbying subcontracts like those awarded by ComEd to an array of Madigan associates.

“The speaker and the House Democratic caucus have said since we passed the ethics bill last year that we are committed to continuing this work in order to restore trust in government and change the culture of state politics. However, we cannot discount what we have done in the past year,” Welch spokeswoman Jaclyn Driscoll said.

“Our caucus remains committed to restoring trust and will continue to review proposals for improving ethics in government, and Speaker Welch remains committed to doing so through collective leadership in an ongoing effort to decentralize the power of the speaker,” she said.

But Kaplan’s group, the state’s first legislative inspector general and Republicans interviewed by WBEZ all point to a variety of steps lawmakers could now take that would have added much more heft to what they passed last year.

Last year’s ethics package revamped the state economic-interest form so government officials, for the first time, must disclose information about creditors, and they are required to identify sources of income in excess of $7,500.

But lawmakers scrapped a longstanding question on the form that shed light on “professional services” state officials performed in their outside jobs, an issue that now arguably carries heightened focus because of allegations in the Madigan indictment surrounding a potential client of his law firm.

Historically, that question was not always terribly revealing. But former President Barack Obama, while he was an Illinois state senator, used it to attach a listing of cases involving his law firm’s clients – a level of legislative disclosure that has been entirely atypical since Obama’s departure from the Legislature nearly 18 years ago.

It was a way for the public to discern any potential conflicts of interest between Obama’s legislative actions and his work as a lawyer. During his legislative career, the disclosure never hurt Obama politically nor resulted in criticism that he had crossed any ethical lines.

Madigan did not make such disclosures on his economic interest statements. But his law firm, for a time, published an online list of “representative clients,” though it never was clear whether that published list represented a full accounting of law firm clients or even anything close to it. After published reports about potential conflicts between Madigan’s legislative actions and his law firm’s work, Madigan & Getzendanner discontinued the online disclosure of clients in 2016.

Since 1967, Illinois’ statutes have included a provision within the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act that lays out “ethical principles for legislators.”

Lawmakers are instructed to “avoid accepting or retaining an economic opportunity which presents a substantial threat to his independence of judgment.” There is also a provision in that law that says whenever an outside conflict of interest arises, the lawmaker “should consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation.”

But missing entirely is any enforcement mechanism for legislators who don’t abide by those stated conflict of interest principles. The law stipulates that its language is “intended only as guides to legislator conduct, and not as rules meant to be enforced by disciplinary action.”

In 2011 and in 2014, former state Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer urged lawmakers to address that deficiency and put real teeth into that conflict-of-interest language. The permissive language and lack of any enforcement mechanism “really made a mockery of the whole thing,” Homer told WBEZ.

The Illinois Governmental Ethics Law’s shortcomings were pointed out yet again in 2018 by one of Homer’s successors, former Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter.

She cited a different section of the law as a basis for finding that former state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, engaged in conduct “unbecoming to a legislator” toward a female victims’ rights advocate. Porter noted the law never detailed what “unbecoming” conduct entailed nor laid out any penalties for that behavior.

The statehouse response to those multiple attempts by Homer and Porter to bring the law’s obvious failings to the General Assembly’s attention – Madigan included – amounted to political crickets. Additionally, the ethics push last year didn’t touch either of these sections of the law.

“At this point, I would say the Legislature has totally turned its back on the issue. I don’t know what it’s going to take. Maybe it’s this case,” Homer said, referring to the Madigan indictment. “But the time is here. It’s not like there aren’t other jurisdictions that have dealt with the issue. Congress has a blueprint how they deal with it. Other states have dealt with the issue.”

Transparency lacking

Part of the federal government’s case against Madigan hinges on allegations that he knowingly used ComEd as a patronage dumping ground.

Homer, now in private practice as a lawyer in Naperville, has a unique perspective on the issues of Madigan and patronage. In 2014, as legislative inspector general, he investigated the questionable means by which Madigan secured jobs for his political operatives at Metra, the suburban rail transit agency.

Homer issued a scathing secret report to the Legislative Ethics Commission, an eight-member body composed equally of Democrats and Republicans. But without a majority authorizing the release of his report, which was obtained by the Chicago Tribune’s Ray Long, state law required it remain secret and barred Homer from publicly discussing its findings.

To this day, the commission has not publicly released the report about Madigan’s conduct at Metra, a lack of transparency that state lawmakers have either ignored or willingly chosen to preserve with equal effect.

“When you’re muzzled and you can’t even talk about your findings without violating the law, it’s damaging not only to your reputation but to the process, which is the more important thing,” Homer said. “If the findings can’t be publicized, what was the point of the report?

“To do all the work on that and then to just have it buried with the commission was absurd,” he said.

In last year’s legislative ethics fix, lawmakers didn’t address that particular issue of transparency. They did, however, empower legislative inspectors general for the first time to open investigations on their own. Before, they had to get permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission. Lawmakers left intact a provision stating that any subpoenas compelling testimony or the production of documents still have to be approved by the commission.

The lead Senate sponsor of last year’s ethics push, state Sen. Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights, defended her package and said it was designed so “bad actors are held accountable.” But, like Harmon and Welch, she stopped short of identifying more post-Madigan indictment reforms as a priority with the spring session’s legislative clock winding down.

“Although the wrongdoings we’re seeing are already against the law, I know our work is not over,” she said in a statement. “I will continue to work with my colleagues on ways to prevent further unethical acts from happening and ensure that it is clear to the public that corruption has no place in state government.”

Ethics reform after major scandals

Over time, the state’s biggest ethics advances always have come after major corruption scandals have erupted.

In the 1990s, for example, convictions in the federal Management Services of Illinois state contracting investigation that rocked former Gov. Jim Edgar’s administration yielded a major ethics package that included prohibitions on state officials accepting gifts from those with business before the government. Officeholders also were banned from using their campaign funds as personal piggy banks.

Those particular reforms bore Madigan’s own imprint.

“Given the developments over the last several months in the MSI trial … it has seemed to me that actions should be taken to eliminate the gravy train in Springfield,” Madigan said during a September 1997 statehouse press conference where he laid out his reform plan.

Later on, Madigan was a chief co-sponsor of legislation in 2003 that established the network of executive and legislative ethics commissions and inspectors general that Homer and Porter were part of. The impetus was the far-reaching federal Operation Safe Roads investigation that drove Republican Gov. George Ryan from office and into federal prison.

And reforms arising from Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s stormy six years in office between 2003 and 2009 included restrictions on campaign contributions from state contractors, an expansion of the state’s open-records law and a statute allowing for the recall of a governor, among other things.

Of late, Republicans have tried to capitalize on Madigan’s legal quandary by pushing for renewed ethics reforms, but their efforts have been stymied.

“Legislators need to actually accept that we need to start policing ourselves and do it in a meaningful way because, if not, we’re going to continue to see more indictments and Illinois is going to continue to be a laughing stock when it comes to how we do government here,” said state Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, who sat on the 2020 House committee that investigated the allegations surrounding ComEd and Madigan.

Democrats on that panel, chaired by Welch before he became speaker, shut it down without meting out any sanctions against Madigan.

Mazzochi is currently lead sponsor of legislation that would bar officeholders like Madigan from using their campaign funds to pay for criminal defense lawyers to fend off misconduct allegations arising from officeholders’ public duties.

She regards it as a potent type of ethics reform that could chill public corruption if offending officeholders knew they themselves, instead of campaign donors, were liable for massive legal bills. But her measure is sitting in a legislative deepfreeze and unlikely to receive a full House vote.

“Mike Madigan has amassed millions of dollars in what I would call corrupt cash to pay for his legal defense. And individuals who were donors to him are now effectively funding his campaign against going to prison,” she said.

“One of the reasons I filed HB2929 is to just basically confirm in a very clear, unambiguous way that in Illinois, we are not going to say that an ordinary expense of holding public office is to use your campaign funds to defend yourself in a criminal or civil corruption probe,” she said.

Since the July 2020 filing of the ComEd deferred prosecution agreement, in which Madigan was referred to 72 times, the ex-speaker’s Friends of Michael J. Madigan political committee has spent $4.28 million on legal fees.

It reported an end-of-year 2021 balance of $10.5 million, which is on top of the $2.57 million sitting in another Madigan-controlled campaign fund, the 13th Ward Democratic Organization.

Remaining paths to reform

With the House Democratic supermajority showing no inclination to support Mazzochi’s bill, the Illinois Supreme Court stands as one last possible avenue that could prohibit the practice of using campaign funds to pay for legal fees.

In January, the state’s high court heard arguments in a case brought by Chicago Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward, against the political committee of his predecessor, former Ald. Danny Solis, that challenges the expenditure of $220,000 for Solis criminal defense lawyers.

Solis, who is a government mole, secretly recorded conversations involving Madigan and the potential Chinatown land deal, according to the Madigan indictment.

No decision on the case has been handed down yet by the court, where two members, including Chief Justice Anne Burke, have opted to abstain. Burke’s husband is Ald. Ed Burke, whom Solis also secretly recorded as part of the federal government’s corruption case against the long-serving 14th Ward alderman.

Ald. Burke, who said he’s done nothing wrong, has dipped into his campaign funds for legal fees totaling more than $2.8 million since 2019, state records show.

As a possibly intense reelection battle looms, Pritzker has signaled no urgency in pushing for more ethics reforms ahead of the General Assembly’s scheduled April 8 spring adjournment, opting instead to point to last year’s steps that he credits with “bringing more transparency to the process and tightening requirements for lobbyists.”

“The governor believes we must restore the public’s trust in government, and he will continue to work with the General Assembly to ensure that those who violate that trust are held fully accountable,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.

Kaplan, with Reform for Illinois, has a long list of ethics reforms she’d like to see the state Legislature tackle in the wake of the Madigan indictment, including conflict of interest reforms, beefed-up authority for the legislative inspector general and expanded lobbyist disclosures, among other things.

“I think we need to resist the temptation to say, ‘This was just Madigan, one bad apple. Now that Madigan’s gone, the problem is solved,’ ” she said. “We know in Illinois that’s not true. This is the symptom of a system that invites and encourages political corruption, and we see that constantly on the front pages of our newspapers.”

Kaplan said the ethics work that lawmakers did last year in Springfield and that is getting touted now with regularity by its legislative authors merits no better than a D grade and called on Pritzker to push for more meaningful reforms as he seeks reelection.

“They did a few small things around the margins. But there was a lot left to do around lobbying reform, around disclosure, around oversight. And even the governor knows it. I mean, he came out several times and said that he wanted more. But at the same time he had the opportunity to demand more and to really show leadership on this and repeatedly he chose not to,” Kaplan said.

“So far,” she continued, “we have not seen him willing to spend the political capital that a crisis like this really demands in order to get real changes.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.

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