Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Clean hiring

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced recently that he's considering outsourcing the city's hiring in order to deal with the long-documented problems of political influence and patronage. In a city that still can't determine who hired Angelo Torres, the thinking goes, bringing in an outsider may increase accountability.

The problems at city hall, though, aren’t with paperwork, or tracking recommendations, or posting new openings in public places (though all of those have been used as excuses). The problem is finding someone who is comfortable telling elected officials that their campaign volunteers don't automatically get the jobs. Those so-called volunteers can apply, as can everyone else, but they get no leg up, no points, no boost from having helped out at election time.

If no one at City Hall has the wherewithal to say "no" to powerful politicians who want their people hired regardless of qualifications, then maybe it is necessary to hire outside help. But that alone shows how endemic the problem has become.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Petition Sunshine

In a recent ruling that got lots of ink locally, the US Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the federal Honest Services law, a factor in the initial (but not current) indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Another ruling issued the same day got far less attention, but is no less deserving. In Doe v Reed, the Court rejected arguments that petition signatures should be kept from the public to avoid intimidation of people signing petitions.

The federal case came out of Washington state, where a citizens' group petitioned for a referendum on a gay marriage law. The group, Protect Marriage Washington, claimed that its supporters faced attacks and reprisals if their petitions were made public. The Secretary of State certified that they had enough names, but complied with a court order not to release the petitions to outside groups.

The public has a keen interest in the integrity of elections. Seeing the petitions, and knowing that any interested group can check them, bolsters public confidence in the referendum process. Being told that the Secretary of State says they're good enough and therefore no one else has to see them, by contrast, diminishes that public trust. Remember the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections? Both turned on states where the chief election officer was the elected Secretary of State, who in both instances had endorsed one of the candidates for president. Whether they were right or wrong, their decisions turned the election to the candidate they endorsed, fueling cynicism. To avoid that, the process must be open and transparent. The petitions must be public.

Last week's ruling was a jumble. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts and joined, in one form or another, by seven of his colleagues. Only Justice Thomas dissented. But there were five concurrences alongside the opinion, and where they all agree appears to be a fairly narrow space. The case was remanded, and it remains possible that the court could, at a later date, tolerate hiding the petitions from the public. For now, it's encouraging that the Court recognizes the public's right to access petitions.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Honest Services and the Blagojevich Trial

In a case brought by former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, the US Supreme Courttoday limited the scope of the so-called "Honest Services" law, finding that the law should apply only in cases of bribery and kickbacks and is not suited for the case against Skilling.

Here in Illinois, most will ask how the ruling may affect the case against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. We note that the indictment against the ex-governor was already revised to minimize its reliance on the Honest Services law. Even if the Honest Services law had been wiped out entirely, most of the charges against the ex-governor would survive.

Testimony in the trial to date certainly makes it appear that Rod Blagojevich saw public office as a tool for forcing payments to benefit himself. Whether the subject was the issuance of state grants, the signing of legislation, or even the filling of the US Senate seat, Rod Blagojevich approached his public duties with both eyes focused on what he could get for himself -- a job, a campaign contribution, a personal benefit.

We hope the trial will continue, and that justice will be done. The people of Illinois have endured an impeachment and removal from office; we have seen our state's reputation dragged through the mud. Politicians, like everyone else should be held accountable for their criminal actions. The trial must proceed. Justice is served by having the trial continue.

The ruling is available here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A senate seat for ethics

We expected a few bombshells from the Blagojevich trial, but not one involving Emil Jones and the pay-to-play bill.

ICPR, with the support of a coalition of reform groups and many public officials, was the lead organization pushing for HB 1, the pay-to-play bill. We negotiated it, we lobbied for it, we fought every step of the way, despite years of push back from Senate President Emil Jones.

The pay-to-play bill a simple idea. It was endorsed by every major newspaper in the state, it had passed the House without opposition and it was sponsored in the Senate by 48 of the 59 members. But Senate President Emil Jones would not call it for a vote.

The working assumption at the time was that President Jones was blocking the bill to help Gov. Blagojevich (on this issue, as on many others, at the expense of the members of his caucus, his own reputation, and the clear will of the legislature) because of jobs and contracts given to his family members.

All of the statewide officials, except Blagojevich, endorsed the bill. What's more, all of the statewides except Blagojevich adopted rules prohibiting such contributions even before the pay-to-play bill was enacted. And yet Blagojevich opposed the bill, and by proxy, so did the Senate President.

In testimony Thursday, Blagojevich confidant Lon Monk testified that the actual reason Jones was fighting the bill was that Gov. Blagojevich had promised to appoint Jones to the US Senate if Jones would kill the bill.

In September of 2008, ICPR publicly asked Illinois' junior senator, then running for US President, to call his old friend Emil Jones and ask him to stop playing games and call the override vote. Within days, Barack Obama placed that phone call. Apparently, Emil Jones was willing to buck his caucus, but not his presidential candidate. The override passed, the bill was enacted, and Rod Blagojevich threw his fundraising organization into hyperdrive in order to beat the effective date of the new law.

So far, it's just one man's testimony. Whether that's actually why Jones was so adamantly opposed to the pay-to-play bill, we can't know for sure. But the suggestion that Blagojevich, as governor, would favor his campaign fund over the best interests of the state has a ring of truth to it; it fits a pattern, and it's not so far from the working assumption. We expect more testimony on events that fit that pattern in the coming days and weeks.

Mud is splattering from the trial. And some of it is hitting Emil Jones.