Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Now is not the time to commute George Ryan’s sentence

The news this morning is full of stories about Sen. Dick Durbin’s very public mulling over whether to ask President George Bush to commute our former governor’s prison sentence. Sen. Durbin’s focus seems to be on how George Ryan is faring today. He, and his wife, are frail. To recall why he is in prison (pdf):

• He was convicted on 18 counts of public corruption.
• He structured his office so that hiring, promotions, and raises for staff were predicated on what they delivered to his re-election efforts.
• Equipment was looted to benefit his campaigns.
• He told a State’s Attorney investigating corruption in his staff to lay off “his guys.”
• He abetted the shake down of bidders over the awarding of contracts, and even of a small village over the location of a state prison.
• He apparently raised campaign money without disclosing where it came from, or when.
• He accepted bribes from contractors in the form of vacations and endeavored at the time to mask the bribes by writing checks to the contractors, which they surreptitiously paid back to him in cash.
• He arranged for bribes in the form of payments and loans to his relatives.

Ryan’s supporters cite several reasons for continuing to stand by the man. He got along famously with the General Assembly, and sheparded to passage a legislative agenda that many at the time said was too ambitious. But the reason with the most moral weight is always that, in the waning days of his administration, he commuted the sentences of dozens of prisoners, becoming in the process the man who emptied death row.

These are all true descriptions of some of what George Ryan has done with his time here on Earth, but none of them explain why Sen. Durbin is talking about him now. Nor is it because Ryan and his wife are advancing in age and declining in health. We are having this discussion because the President of the United States is about to leave office. It is no small irony that Ryan’s request that the President commute his sentence is based largely on his own decision, when similarly lame in office, to commute the sentences of dozens of prisoners.

From pay raises to pension enhancements, public officials have long used the tail end of their tenure in office for selfish acts. Now is the time when electeds are most insulated from voter backlash. Whether you see these as courageous or cowardly, they are always opportune.

So let’s not pretend that every fourth- or eighth- December is the time when prisoners subjected to excessive punishments always happen to reach a more proper measure of their debt to society. What Sen. Durbin is considering asking the President to do is not a delicate fine-tuning of the scales of justice but a blunt swinging of the lame duck’s ax. And the proper question is not, should President Bush commute George Ryan’s sentence, but is now the right time? Is barely one year in prison suitable for pervasive abuses of the public trust? For someone who has never acknowledged the breadth of his wrongdoing? Indeed, who has always maintained that “his conscience is clear” despite everything that has been proven? Who has failed to apologize to the Willis family who paid the ultimate price for the Ryan administration's corruption--the loss of six of their children? Who has yet to explain the $156,423.70 that magically appeared in his campaign fund on December 31, 2000? Who has yet to make a single act of contrition?

Now is not the time to commute George Ryan’s sentence.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Crain's looks at lobbying at the federal level

Today's Crain's Chicago Business has an analysis of federal lobbying expenses by Chicago companies. The top ten combined to spend $44 million to lobby federal officials. Crain's attributes top-spender Boeing's lobbying to problems with a military tanker. But a similar analysis of lobbying at the state level is not possible, because the state of Illinois does not require lobbyists to disclose this information.

This kind of analysis gives insight to which companies are most focused on government activities, and what those companies may want from government. A similar analysis of lobbying at the state level would also help illuminate what role state government plays in the economy and in the aspirations of particular interests.

Lobbying expenses at the federal level are disclosed. Incredibly, lobbying expenses at Cook County are also disclosed, and lobbing expenses at the City of Chicago are disclosed. But the State of Illinois? No dice, no data.

Legislation now pending, HB 8, would address this problem, helping voters, lobbyists, and government officials alike get a better handle on what is at stake in government decisions, and who is investing funds in the outcome of those decisions. Would that the State of Illinois caught up with Cook County on the subject of lobbyist disclosure.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reform FOIA

Illinois' Freedom of Information Act was a huge leap forward when first adopted, but now is a forgotten relic, too often ignored by the very governments who are bound by its rules. ICPR made extensive use of FOIA last year with our first report on lobbying by units of local government [pdf]. Citing FOIA, we asked for records relating to lobbying. Most governments did comply, but many, too many, did not respond in accordance with the FOIA. What we got instead was:

* Many units of government took more than a month to respond. FOIA says they must respond with in 7 business days; that response may be to claim one extension, but they absolutely must respond within 14 business days. Large units of government, including the City of Chicago and Cook County, took far, far longer to get back to us.

* Many units charged excessive fees. FOIA allows units of government to charge actual copying costs -- that is, the cost of making copies, not the cost of gathering the information. For paper documents, a trip to the corner copy shop would suggest this is about 10 cents per page. We had units charging 25 cents per page, and the DuPage County Election Commission charged $1.00 per page.

* Many units of government refused to release documents. FOIA exempts from disclosure certain kinds of legal work. We found units of government that claimed that because their lobbyists were also lawyers, they did not have to tell us anything about their work or billings -- even though lobbying is not exempt legal work.

FOIA is supposed to be a floor, a minimum standard that all units of government must follow when taxpayers ask questions about what's being done in the name of the public. In practice, FOIA too often becomes an obstacle course, manipulated by public officials to discourage the public from asking questions.

We agree wholeheartedly with the State Journal-Register's editorial today that FOIA "needs reform -- now." The statute needs to be cleaned up and streamlined. And government agencies need to be reminded of their duties under FOIA, which are, after all, merely what government owes to its owners.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Cook County Downballot Results

All of the county-wide judicial races in Cook County were uncontested, and Democrats won them all. Democrats also did very well in the contested subcircuit races, even in normally Republican subcircuits. Democrats ran candidates in every subcircuit seat, and won most of those they contested. The two most expensive, in the 4th and 12th subcircuits, went to the Democrat, despite the traditional Republican leanings of both of the suburban districts. In the 15th Subcircuit, Democrat Anna Helene Demacopoulous won 61-39 over Republican Peter Fera. The 13th subcircuit saw two contested races; neither drew huge amounts of money, and as of this morning, the Republicans held slim majorities in both with a handful of precincts yet uncounted.

On the retention ballot, no judges were removed from the bench. Judges need 60% of the vote to be retained and it looks like no judge got less than 65% of the vote -- that was Judge Edward Pietrucha, who was found unfit for the bench by 5 of the 10 bar groups that rated judges. Judge Cassandra Lewis, found unfit by 7 of the 10, won retention with 68.6% of the vote.

In other Cook County news, the recall referendum passed county-wide, 63-37. Park Ridge voted for staggered terms for aldermen. And Riverside Township, home to Judy Baar Topinka and Tony Peraica, voted against the advisory/non-binding referendum to "disconnect" from Cook County.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Vote Today Until 7 pm

The radio this morning noted that today is the warmest Election Day in over 40 years, so the weather will likely not discourage voters. I always vote at 6 am when the polls open and today, for the first time, there was a line winding through the parking lot when I arrived. I was finished by 6:20, but still, I saw nothing to suggest that the surge in early voting will not be duplicated on Election Day.

Polls in Illinois are open until 7 pm. As long as you are in line at your polling place by 7 pm, you should be allowed to vote (and please be sure to check both sides of the paper ballot). If you need to know where you vote, the State Board of Elections has links to the 110 local election authorities around the state that manage each individual precinct. Most of these are county-wide authorities, but 8 follow municipal boundaries. Some have websites that will tell you where to vote; others, especially the smaller ones, may require a phone call. Plan ahead, and the day will go more smoothly.

If you have not yet figured out which judges to vote for (and there are dozens on the ballot) here are two resources: offers information on all judicial candidates, including those running for retention. If you live in Cook County, has evaluations from over a dozen different bar and lawyers' groups. The State Board of Elections also offers a voters guide for statewide and some judicial candidates.

The Attorney General's Office has deployed staff to deal with any problems at polling places. If you see or experience problems that the election judges cannot or will not fix, call the Attorney General's Office. In the Chicago area, call 1-866-536-3496; downstate, call 1-866-559-6812