Wednesday, April 19, 2006

ICPR Looks Beyond the Ryan Verdict

George Ryan is guilty. Now what? As a state, where is Illinois now, and where are we going?

While the conviction of the former governor is likely the pinnacle of Operation Safe Road, what makes this series of trials different from previous scandals, from Silver Shovel to Haunted Hall to Greylord, is the methodical way that investigators worked up the chain, bringing indictments and securing convictions of dozens of low-level staffers. Not only did this tactic result in a stream of witnesses each implicating their directors in the higher pay scales, but it also made plain to entry-level grunts everywhere that they are responsible for their own actions.

Ryan led the team, and he had a clever, if unscrupulous, aide in Scott Fawell, but without the help of dozens of underlings, the enterprise would not have worked as well or for as long as it did. In the future every government clerk will have to ask if their superiors are directing them to do something that may be illegal. When higher-ups demand changes to RFPs that seem irrational or unrelated to the public purpose, they should think twice before complying. Managers and directors should think carefully about hiring people they believe to be unqualified, regardless of who recommends the applicant.

Let’s also remember what the U.S. Attorney hasn’t done. He has not explained the origins of $156,423.70 that Citizens for Ryan “discovered” in a previously undisclosed bank account, held at a bank where co-defendant Larry Warner was on the Board of Directors. We still don’t know who deposited that money, or when, or where the money came from. How was it earned? Who paid it, who received it, and why? Was more money deposited to that account but withdrawn before the campaign declared ownership of the funds? And if so, by whom, when, and for what purpose? Nor has he shown which lobbyists, contractors and politicos donated to the Friends of Ryan legal-defense fund that Ryan announced with an official press release while still living in the Governor’s Mansion. Now it looks like those questions may never be answered.

So what more needs to happen? Here are a few suggestions:

Revise lobbyist regulations: With the siting of the Grayville Prison, the contract for vehicle stickers and computer systems, and bids for McPier construction projects, criminal shakedowns were cloaked with legitimacy by pretending the payoffs were lobbying fees. Larry Warner, Alan Drazek, Don Udstuen, and Ronan-Potts were all convicted of illegal activity disguised as their constitutional right to petition government. The public has a right to know more about what lobbyists are doing, which officials they are meeting with, on whose behalf, and how much they are getting paid for that work. Dozens of states and even Cook County require more disclosure from lobbyists; Illinois now has both the opportunity and compelling reasons for doing the same

Improve the 2003 Ethics Act: Astonishingly, Inspectors General still answer to no one but the person who appointed them. While we have no reason to think that any of the current IGs seek to emulate Dean Bauer, there is nothing to stop them from doing so. IGs have yet to refer a single case to an Ethics Commission; every complaint has been dismissed or resolved internally. There has been no oversight, either by the public or the Ethics Commissions, to ensure that IGs are doing their jobs; and IGs can do nothing to demonstrate to the public that corruption is being properly addressed. Too, each IG sets his or her own standards for ethics training, with no input from the Ethics Commission, meaning that every constitutional office determines its own interpretation of the ethics laws and how its staff will be instructed to follow it. Uniformity should be the rule.

Tackle Pay-to-Play: Illinois still has no rules limiting how much state contractors can give to the campaign funds of the public officials who negotiate and sign their contracts. Corporate donations are completely unregulated, even though most other states and the federal government ban such giving, and nearly every state that allows corporate donations limits them. In Illinois, bidders on state contracts, their directors, officers and employees, and board appointees are all allowed to give as much as they can whenever they want to whomever will accept it. That should stop.

Adopt contribution limits: Illinois should join with nearly all other states and the federal government in adopting campaign contribution limits and banning direct contributions from unions and corporations.

The U.S. Attorney is limited in what he can do. He can subpoena witnesses, and he can call people before a Grand Jury. But he can’t bring an indictment all by himself, and he can’t convict the accused. Nor, obviously, can he put new laws on the books.

The fundamental problem here is the relationship between money and politics. That’s where the legislature and the public come in. Legislators have moved significant new laws in a very short time before, and the nearness of adjournment should not mean that reform must wait. Bills now pending in the Capitol will address lobbyist regulation, the Ethics Act, pay-to-play, a clean money option for Supreme Court candidates, limiting contributions from large donors, and a host of other pressing needs. Now is the time for Illinoisans to tell their representatives that actions speak louder than words.

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