Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What were they thinking?

Two stories in the Chicago press today had me scratching my head with wonder. Why is clean government so baffling to people in power?

The Tribune reports on city aldermen who think Patrick Fitzgerald has gone too far in enforcing rules against political patronage. The rights of public servants to their own political affiliations are well-settled, but in Illinois, it seems that prosecutors have to swoop in every few years to remind our public officials what the rest of the nation learned over a century ago. Politicians cannot hand out jobs to supporters. Hiring, firing, promotions, contracts, and other benefits should not be doled out based on campaign considerations. Taxpayer funds should benefit taxpayers. And yet, one unnamed alderman insists, “nobody has considered it a crime before.” Maybe nobody at City Hall, but surely after Rutan, and Shakman, and (gulp) the 2003 Ethics Act, we’d have hoped they’d have learned differently.

The Sun-Times has another doozy, revealing that Gov. Blagojevich was maintaining a favors list that connected new hires with political sponsors. At the same time that the governor was bragging about changing the way business was done, insisting that other politicians fought with him because he was reforming the system, it turns out his office was also tracking special interest sponsors of state employees. Maybe the governor now wants to explain why he let a riverboat casino lobbyist pick the Gaming Board’s lobbyist? Was that the new and improved way of doing the people’s business?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Scott Fawell was indicted (and convicted) of abuse of public office for acts he committed after he knew he was a target in the Safe Roads investigation, and some Hired Truck defendants were charged with crimes committed after the first Hired Truck indictments came down. Some people just think they’re immune; even when they know prosecutors are looking at them, they keep on breaking the law. But our public officials are lucky, in a way. If they haven’t learned the lesson yet, the latest round of federal prosecutions will give them all another chance to get it right.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

An Open Letter to the Reform Community from the Governor (via the Board of Elections)

Nine days ago, the eight biggest reform organizations in Illinois came together to send a joint letter to Gov. Blagojevich to remind him of his pledge to rock Springfield. Today, we got a response. From the State Board of Elections.

Why, you ask, is the State Board of Elections answering the governor’s mail? Apparently, because he asked them to. Why he would do that, we can’t say. You could say we’re gobsmacked.

Here, in its entirety, is the body of the letter from the State Board of Elections:

“The Governor’s office forwarded me a copy of your “Open Letter from the Campaign Reform Community to Governor Rod Blagojevich” so that the State Board of Elections might respond. However, the State Board of Elections is powerless to take actions which are not authorized by statute. Therefore, the only the Governor or members of the legislature could accurately answer the questions you have posed in your letter.”

The one grammatical error we can deal with; perhaps this is a first draft. But the substance of the letter is what’s confusing. Is this what the governor’s office thinks is an adequate response to corruption in Illinois?


UPDATE: The Better Government Association has posted a pdf of their copy of the letter here.

We're ICPR and We Had Fun Last Night

What a wonderful evening last night. Sorry it was so crowded, but at least it looked like everyone was having a good time. And for political people watching, it was a great crowd: Sens Susan Garrett and Bill Brady, Don Harmon and Kirk Dillard; Reps Jim Durkin and Julie Hamos, former Gov. Jim Edgar and former Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch; Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson and Chicago Ald. Manny Flores; Alexi Giannoulias and Stu Umholtz, Rep. Elaine Nekritz and Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica. I’m sure I’m forgetting some people, but that’s who I talked with.

Thanks to everybody who helped us to gather the campaign ads for the film festival and especially to Aaron Freeman, who explained them all to us. Thanks to Mike Lawrence, Newt Minow and the Peoria Journal-Star for doing so much work worthy of tribute. Thanks to our host committee, and to everybody who came. We’ll post pictures to the website as soon as we figure out how to get them off the camera.

Monday, May 08, 2006

IPA/IGA

New York Times readers now know what contributor profiles visitors have known for years: that John Burgess and his International Profit Associates has a colorful history of political giving and courtroom drama. Here in Illinois, Burgess and Gov. Blagojevich have been trading five-figure check back and forth since the last gubernatorial campaign, and last IPA-affilates gave to a new PAC formed by Blago spokesperson Doug Scofield. But Burgess has been giving in other areas, too, including Wisconsin and federal candidates.

See a donor you don’t know? Check out our Contributor Profiles. Maybe our new slogan should be “ICPR: We’ve got you covered.”


Chicago Mayor Richard M Daley’s deposition in the Hired Truck scandal seems to have the press' attention, so much so that nobody seems to be asking the obvious question. When the feds had him under oath, Daley said that the Inter-Government Affairs office “recommended” job applicants to other departments, but he insists that IGA did not order others to hire specific applicants. The Sun-Times today notes that Daley’s statements seem to buttress the defendant’s arguments. But on what basis was IGA “recommending” applicants to other departments?

The 98-page evidentiary proffer filed last April 10 outlines “recommendations” from IGA to the departments of Water, Sewers, and Streets & San. The proffer suggests that those departments understood IGA recommendations as requirements, but even if so, can IGA explain how they decided who was best qualified for a job in the Sewer Department? Can just any department forward lists of recommendations to other departments? Did the Water Department presume to suggest who IGA should hire in return? How are such recommendations received?

Mayor Daley has been out of the country a lot lately, so it’s probably hard to ask him questions. But if you should run into him somewhere, maybe you could ask.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Leaders, or Candidates?

The General Assembly seems to be out of ideas for reforming Illinois politics, having adjourned without taking action on any substantive ethics or campaign finance proposals. Where the people’s representatives won’t lead, the people will have to step up. And today’s papers are full of ideas of what to do, or examples of what’s wrong. For instance:

Item: A former member of the Peoria Election Commission pleaded guilty to a felony for lobbying his own Commission on behalf of Populex voting equipment without admitting that he owned $240K in Populex stock, given to him by the company for serving on an advisory panel. He gave inside information to Populex to help the company improve its bid, prosecutors say. Does the company face any sanction? While he’s paying almost $40K in fines and reimbursements, what happens to the other $200K in stock he got? What role, if any, did he play in getting Sangamon County to adopt Populex equipment? Or is that the end of the story?

Item: Dolton Mayor William Shaw has hired his twin brother, Robert, to serve as Inspector General. A Dolton spokesperson insists Robert Shaw is qualified, but was the hiring process clean and fair, or was his job created after Robert Shaw lost an election last March? And why is this Inspector General not allowed to investigate the Mayor or the Trustees? Sounds more like an Inspector Limited.

Item: When New Lenox Mayor Mike Smith was found using a village credit card for personal expenses, he replied that he always repaid the village with a personal check. Now it seems that at least some of the time he was actually repaying the village with campaign funds. Was he using a village credit card for campaign expenses? Is he using campaign funds for personal expenses? Is he paying income taxes on these payments? Who paid for the strip club: the village, the PAC or the mayor? Should any of this be allowed?

Item: Former Chicago Ald. Dick Simpson writes in the Sun-Times today with a four-part plan to clean up politics in Illinois: (1) elect “officials running on a sincere platform of ending corruption” (2) “eliminate political machines“, (3) “provide public funding for political campaigns“ and (4) “enhance sunshine and freedom of information laws.“ Too much? Too little? What do you think?

The legislature adjourned so that they can hit the campaign trail. If you see any of them on that trail, ask them what they think of these stories. And why they left Springfield without doing anything about corruption.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

How Springfield is Not DC

News reports announced this morning that the House of Representatives had narrowly passed an ethics reform bill. That happened in Washington, DC; the U.S. House of Representatives passed the measure, not the Illinois House of Representatives. In the shorthand way that some news reports covered the story, Illinoisans may think that their state officials had taken action. Not true. Here’s a brief recap.

In Washington, DC, the Republican majority reacted to a laundry list of corruption, including the indictments of Jack Abramhoff and some of his associates; and also former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and the conviction of Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham by narrowly passing legislation to change the way lobbyists are regulated. Democrats, in the minority, objected that the reforms didn’t go far enough. That measure now goes to the U.S. Senate.

In Springfield, the Democratic majority reacted to a laundry list of corruption, including the conviction of a former governor, the sitting Chicago City Clerk, the former Republican chief of staff in the House and Democratic leaders in Metro East, by sitting on their hands and doing nothing.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

We [heart] Carol

The response to the open letter to the governor has been very good – outside of the Capitol. The Daily Herald ran an excerpt in their “Fencepost” section, and Carol Marin wrote an energizing column in today’s Sun-Times. Here’s a taste of Marin’s piece;

“I don't know about you but I've had about all I can stand of charm and good hair in Illinois politics.”

Under the Dome, however, the crickets have been louder than legislators and the Governor. Will ethics, campaign finance reform, Supreme Court public financing, or lobbyist regulation be enacted? The silence out of the Governor’s Office has been stunning.

Stay tuned. Better yet, pick up the phone and ask your legislators.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

AN OPEN LETTER FROM THE CAMPAIGN REFORM COMMUNITY TO GOVERNOR ROD BLAGOJEVICH

May 2, 2006

Dear Governor Blagojevich:

We’re fast approaching the one-year anniversary of the day you unveiled a proposal to limit campaign donations by individuals, to ban corporate and union contributions, to close the revolving door on legislators becoming lobbyists and to strengthen the enforcement powers of the State Board of Elections.

At the time, your critics said you weren’t serious about the proposal and that it was nothing more than “damage control” needed to reverse a slide in public opinion polls that followed weeks of news articles about terrible state audits and big contributors getting big state contracts.

Because you released the details of your proposal with less than three weeks remaining in the spring 2005 legislative session, legislators from both political parties questioned your commitment to passing the legislation.

To date, you’ve done little to prove your critics wrong.

Even though the presiding officers of the General Assembly are co-chairs of your re-election campaign and have helped pass your other major initiatives, your reform legislation hasn’t even been the topic of a legislative committee hearing.

A year ago, you told reporters: “The legislators will have a clear choice on whether or not they want to pass it or not. We’re going to do our best to try to pass it. We’ll keep pushing that. I think it will be dramatic and a significant reform.” We haven’t heard much from you since.

In February, 2006, you told the Chicago Tribune that the time wasn’t right. You said, "you have to pick your fights at the right time to get such legislation passed.” Our question is: if not now, when?

In the year since you promised to “rock the system in Springfield,” Illinoisans have been rocked all right, but not by your legislation. Voters have been exposed to the underside of state government. The federal corruption trial of former Gov. George Ryan showed what can happen in a government where special interests are able to give huge sums of money to political candidates and what results when there is no sunshine on the internal investigations that are supposed to be a safeguard against corruption.

The conviction of a former governor on 18 counts, including racketeering and lying to the FBI, should be more than enough evidence of the need to enact laws aimed at changing what you and others have called the “culture of corruption” in state government. Add to that Chicago City Clerk Jim Laski’s plea of guilty to accepting bribes; the ongoing Hired Truck investigations; and Michael Tristano’s plea of guilty to diverting at least $128,000 in state resources to political purposes while he was chief of staff to then Speaker of the House Lee Daniels and the evidence is overwhelming.

Now is the time to pass meaningful reform laws.

We have long supported your comprehensive package as part of our efforts to clean up Illinois’ political climate. We have also acknowledged the political necessity of taking incremental steps along the way to full reform. At a minimum, the General Assembly should pass the Government Integrity Initiative banning contributions from companies with state government contracts, creating a voluntary public financing system for Illinois Supreme Court elections, and strengthening lobbyist disclosure requirements.

When you set your mind to it, Governor, you have demonstrated how persuasive you can be in passing major pieces of legislation, including the ethics reforms of 2003.

Will you give your own campaign and government reform proposal the same dedication, the same commitment, the same degree of support? Or were your critics correct in saying this was nothing more than a cynical attempt to divert attention from your own fundraising practices?

Will you bring legislative leaders to the table this week and negotiate sweeping reforms that include the major elements of your plan from last spring?

What will it take to change the culture in state government? Do the people of Illinois have to wait until another politician is tried and convicted of wrongdoing, or is enough, enough?

We urge you to act now, and we stand ready to assist.

Sincerely,

Jay Stewart
Better Government Association

Terry Pastika
Citizen Advocacy Center

Todd Dieterle
Common Cause/Illinois

Cynthia Canary
Illinois Campaign for Political Reform

Brian Imus
Illinois PIRG

Paula Lawson
League of Women Voters of Illinois

Al Sharp
Protestants for the Common Good

Kent Redfield
Sunshine Project