Illinois has paid out millions in pensions to ex-lawmakers who have admitted criminal wrongdoing or are awaiting trial.
CHICAGO — Illinois state senator-turned-government mole Terry Link infamously asked “What’s in it for me?” while wearing a wire in a 2019 federal bribery sting that snared a corrupt legislative colleague.
Link played the role of undercover hero in that encounter, but he’s far from being a study in ethical behavior.
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As part of a plea deal, the Vernon Hills Democrat admitted underreporting his income for four years to avoid paying his share of state and federal income taxes. He’s awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal tax evasion.
And yet, taxpayers likely will keep paying Link handsomely for years to come: He’s gotten $200,000 from his state pension, and counting.
Those payments are part of nearly $2 million in state retirement checks that WBEZ documented going out to a mix of federally charged, convicted and self-admitted felons who once served under the Capitol dome in Springfield. In some cases, loved ones were the beneficiaries.
Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his indicted inner circle all have drawn hundreds of thousands of dollars in state pension payments while they await upcoming federal corruption trials. Madigan has pleaded not guilty.
Former state Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion and last year was drawing his state pension while serving time in a federal prison.
The group also includes the widow of former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago. He admitted pocketing more than $250,000 in bribes as a legislator. After his death in 2020, his wife has continued to receive his pension.
All of these cases won sign-off from an obscure state panel, often on the advice of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. Raoul’s office found that the criminal wrongdoing of people like Acevedo and Link didn’t disqualify them from their pensions because it wasn’t linked to their work as public officials. That’s a legal standard Illinois pension boards rely on to decide who gets a pension, and who doesn’t.
But told of WBEZ’s findings, some legislative critics aren’t soothed by the legal arguments justifying taxpayer-funded pensions for felonious ex-lawmakers, particularly in an era when few non-political workers are in line for pensions during their retirements.
“If you asked 100 people on the street if this was OK, 100 people on the street would say no,” said state Sen. Mary Edly-Allen, D-Libertyville.
She favors barring ex-lawmakers from drawing state pensions if they are convicted of felonies.
“We need to start over again and pass something that doesn’t allow this to happen in the future,” she said. “It’s really a betrayal of the public’s trust on many levels.”
The case for letting a mole keep his pension
Link’s undercover work for federal law enforcement contributed to the 2021 bribery conviction of former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago. (Link denied being a government mole to reporters, but WBEZ and other outlets have confirmed through a source who was not authorized to speak about it publicly that the former state senator secretly recorded Arroyo).
But it was Link’s later admission to federal tax evasion that put his state pension at risk.
He admitted to using more than $73,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses and not declaring that as income to the government. Using political money as Link did is against state law. In fact, banning the use of campaign money for personal benefits was a good-government reform for which Link himself voted in 1998, his second year in the legislature.
The state panel that approved Link’s pension didn’t make the call on its own — the state General Assembly Retirement System board received legal guidance from the attorney general about whether Link’s wrongdoing met the statutory requirement to cost him his pension.
Raoul’s office said Link’s felony wasn’t enough to disqualify him.
“This conclusion should not be interpreted as condoning Link’s misconduct,” the attorney general’s opinion stated. “He pled guilty to a felony violation of federal law. Despite the nature of the offense, forfeiture of a public officer’s pension benefits is authorized only in the limited circumstances provided for in the Illinois Pension Code, and only for conduct that is violative of the public trust.
“Although Link violated federal law, it cannot be said, based on the information currently available to this office, that such conduct was directly related to the performance of his official duties as a state senator,” the opinion stated.
Raoul’s office cited a federal prosecutor’s statement in court that the tax charge against Link wasn’t related to his service as a state senator.
Using Raoul’s opinion as a basis, the state retirement system board voted 5-0 to grant Link his pension, which this year equals $7,753 per month.
Link’s lawyer did not respond to WBEZ’s inquiry about his state pension. Raoul’s office declined comment. And U.S. Attorney John Lausch’s office also declined to comment.
House Minority Leader Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, said she was unaware that Link’s pension benefits were approved and said she is stumped at how anyone could interpret his wrongdoing as not being related to his job as a state senator.
“How this is considered unrelated is really beyond me,” McCombie said.
Former Governors Otto Kerner and George Ryan, both of whom served federal prison time on corruption charges, each lost their state pensions because of their wrongdoing. So too did former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
In 2015, the General Assembly Retirement System board voted to strip pensions from former state Rep. Keith Farnham, D-Elgin, for being convicted of having child porn on his state computers, and former state Rep. Constance Howard, D-Chicago, for being convicted of sponsoring charitable fundraisers as a lawmaker and pocketing the money for herself.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached, convicted on federal corruption charges and served prison time until former President Donald Trump commuted his sentence, has not applied for his state pension, according to the state General Assembly Retirement System. However, former Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a 2011 opinion, saying it is “beyond dispute” Blagojevich is ineligible for any state pension benefits based on his criminal misconduct while in office.
And while Arroyo had his pension benefits suspended since his 2021 federal bribery conviction, the state General Assembly Retirement System board has not yet voted to terminate his pension. That is expected to be on the panel’s agenda later this spring.
But there are questions about what happens to a former state official’s pension if their felony occurs after leaving office.
Attorney General recommends another convicted former lawmaker can keep his pension
Acevedo is one example in that questionable gray area. He initially began receiving state pension checks in 2018 but had them suspended briefly in early 2022 due to his guilty plea. But they were reinstated last May based, in part, on an opinion from Raoul, who determined Acevedo’s wrongdoing occurred after he left public office and shouldn’t cost him his legislative pension.
“In this instance, the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense of tax evasion do not establish that Acevedo’s felony conviction was a product of his public service,” Raoul’s office wrote to the General Assembly Retirement System board.
Since the start of 2022, state retirement system records show Acevedo has gotten $265,252 in pension payments, and another nearly $65,000 of Acevedo’s state pension earnings have gone to an ex-wife under a divorce settlement.
Acevedo re-emerged as a focal point of federal investigators last fall. A government filing in October said Acevedo was paid $22,500 despite doing no work for AT&T Illinois as part of an illegal company effort to secure support from Madigan for 2017 legislation the company was pushing.
A former member of Madigan’s leadership team, Acevedo was not charged in connection with that payment, but AT&T agreed to pay a $23 million fine and pledged to cooperate with federal investigators in exchange for potentially setting aside a racketeering-related charge.
Acevedo’s defense lawyer, Gabrielle Sansonetti, declined comment about state pension payments to Acevedo.
Another legislator who ran into legal trouble with the feds was Sandoval.
A federal raid in 2019 of Sandoval’s statehouse office by the FBI was one of the earliest public indicators that investigators were focused on potential wrongdoing by Commonwealth Edison, which paid a $200 million fine to settle a federal bribery charge based on its efforts to woo Madigan.
In early 2020, Sandoval agreed to a federal plea deal in which he admitted to pocketing more than $250,000 in bribes while in office and he pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion. Sandoval also pledged cooperation with the feds in future investigations.
“I take full responsibility for my actions,” Sandoval said after his plea deal was announced. “I am ashamed, and I’m sorry. I want to apologize to the people of Illinois and to my constituents.”
However, in December of 2020, he died from complications arising from COVID-19 before being sentenced. As a result, the plea deal was nullified, and he was never officially convicted of a felony. His widow was then deemed eligible to draw a portion of his pension. She has received $99,372 since.
Additionally, retirement officials say her pension benefits are protected under a 2017 state law that prohibits a surviving spouse from being deprived of their husband’s or wife’s public benefits unless they too are charged with a felony related to the public service of the deceased officeholder. Marina Sandoval did not meet that criterion.
Sandoval’s former defense lawyer, Dylan Smith, did not respond to WBEZ questions about state pension payments to the late senator’s widow.
Allowing corrupt ex-lawmakers keep their pension “never come easy”
State Sen. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, is chairman of the General Assembly Retirement System board and defended his panel’s actions involving Sandoval, Link and Acevedo.
“We seek to follow the law. We seek to follow the recommendations of the attorney general who is charged with rendering this opinion. But every one of those decisions, they never come easy,” Martwick told WBEZ.
Martwick said he is satisfied with the current laws that allow them to strip pensions for office-related felonies.
“In some instances, you could argue it maybe even hurts people it’s not intended to,” Martwick said, citing a spouse or children who might suffer financially from the cutoff of a corrupt ex-lawmaker’s pension. “That lends to the severity of it. So I think the laws as they exist are pretty good.”
But there is precedent for the board rejecting the recommendation of the attorney general and stripping the pension of an ex-legislator for wrongdoing after that occurred after they had left office.
In 2015, Hastert, the former Republican U.S. House speaker from Yorkville, pleaded guilty to illegally structuring bank withdrawals to evade federal reporting requirements.
Hastert admitted to withdrawing $952,000 to make secret payments to someone he had sexually abused decades earlier, when the boy was 14.
In a 2017 opinion, former Attorney General Madigan concluded Hastert’s criminal conduct was unrelated to his time as a member of the Illinois House before that abuse, and suggested his monthly pension only be reduced.
The retirement board unanimously rejected that opinion and voted to terminate Hastert’s legislative pension in its entirety. He appealed that decision in court but lost in 2018.
Between 1997 and when Hastert lost his Illinois retirement benefit, he had cashed $422,860 in pension checks, state records show.
A call to pause pension payments for ex-lawmakers awaiting trial
The General Assembly Retirement System board’s decisions on pensions could soon come under scrutiny again.
Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, his one-time aide Timothy Mapes, Madigan’s political confidante Michael McClain and ex-lawmaker Annazette Collins are drawing their state pensions as they await their own federal criminal trials. McClain’s trial, along with three former Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists, begins next month.
Madigan’s alleged wrongdoing occurred during his record-breaking tenure as a legislative leader, but the others are accused of criminal acts after being in the legislature or on the state payroll.
Madigan has been hit with bribery, racketeering and conspiracy charges related to alleged shakedowns of ComEd and AT&T of Illinois for no-work jobs for his political associates. State records show Madigan, who resigned from the House in February 2021, began drawing his legislative pension a month later and so far has received $200,380.
Mapes, who resigned as Illinois House clerk in June 2018 after a lengthy stint as Madigan’s chief of staff, has been accused of lying to a federal grand jury and attempted obstruction of justice related to the federal Madigan investigation. Mapes began drawing his state pension in July 2018 and so far has received $636,326, state records show.
McClain, a former Illinois House member and ComEd lobbyist who goes on trial March 6th, faces conspiracy and bribery-related charges for his alleged role in the ComEd and AT&T scandals involving Madigan. McClain has drawn a legislative pension since 2002 with the total payout now standing at $308,635, state records show.
And Collins, a former Illinois House and Senate member between 2001 and 2013, was named in a five-count federal tax-evasion indictment in 2021 related to undeclared income from her consulting and lobbying business. She began drawing her legislative pension in 2017 and so far has amassed $226,627, state records show.
State Rep. Amy Elik, R-Alton, and McCombie, R-Savanna, are pushing legislation this spring that would halt pension payments to those accused of felonies and who are awaiting trial.
“It’s not fair that people that have been indicted can drag on a case for many, many years … and they get to receive these lucrative pensions for long periods of time,” Elik said.
Edly-Allen predicted voters in both blue and red districts across the state would be incensed to learn their tax dollars were going into the pockets of ex-legislators who engaged in criminal wrongdoing.
“I don’t think many people are aware of it, and I think people should be outraged and rightfully so,” she said.
“We’re held to a higher standard as legislators,” she continued. “As some have lost their way, that’s where we want to shine a light and say, ‘OK, we need to fix it.’”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ.