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Republicans upend Democratic efforts to show they’re serious about ethics reform in Springfield

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 9/3/2021 Dan Petrella, Chicago Tribune
a castle on a cloudy day: The Illinois Capitol building in Springfield in 2018. © Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune The Illinois Capitol building in Springfield in 2018.

In a move that appeared to catch majority Democrats by surprise, Illinois House Republicans rejected an ethics proposal tweaked by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and are using the resignation of the General Assembly’s top watchdog to push for what they argue are more meaningful anti-corruption measures.

The ethics package, crafted in response to an ongoing federal corruption probe that has swept from City Hall to Springfield, now faces long odds of becoming law. And Democrats who control state government risk losing a chance to show they are taking steps to root out corruption.

While their gambit opens Republicans to accusations of obstructionism, “the narrative about the bill has changed,” said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of advocacy group Reform for Illinois, which was scathing in its criticism of the measure lawmakers approved this spring.

The bill’s many critics include Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope, who said legislators had “demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority” when she resigned in July.

“I think that now there’s enough of a cloud over the bill that the calculus has changed a bit and that they can very persuasively argue that voting for this would be worse than voting for nothing and that it was worth it to try to get it right,” Kaplan said.

The shortcomings of a measure that easily passed this spring have been acknowledged even by some of its supporters. But motivated by fears of being painted as obstacles to reform in Springfield, House Republicans helped it pass by a 113-5 vote in May. The measure was sent to Pritzker’s desk on a unanimous vote in the Senate.

But instead of signing the bill, the Democratic governor issued an amendatory veto to fix a “technical drafting error” he said would inadvertently interfere with the “clear authority” of the executive inspector general’s office to investigate alleged misconduct.

When lawmakers reconvened Aug. 31 for a one-day session, House Republicans voted en masse to reject Pritzker’s proposed change. The Senate earlier in the day voted without opposition to accept the change.

House Democrats could have approved it without any GOP support, but 14 of their members didn’t vote when the measure was called shortly before 10 p.m., which the proposal’s sponsor attributed to dwindling attendance on a “longer than anticipated day.” That left them far short of the necessary 71 ayes.

The last hope for the measure hinges on the House returning to Springfield for a vote by midmonth. The only way that’s likely to happen is if lawmakers and the governor can reach an agreement on another controversial issue: an energy policy overhaul that would include a nearly $700 million bailout for the parent of Commonwealth Edison — the clout-heavy utility company at the heart of the federal corruption probe that sparked the push for stronger ethics laws.

Despite criticisms of the legislation from Republicans, good-government groups and even Pritzker, Democratic state Rep. Kelly Burke of Evergreen Park, who sponsored the measure in the House, said it was “something that was a very positive and needed step for ethics in Illinois.”

The measure would require additional disclosures from officials on personal financial interests, aim to prevent lawmakers from lobbying their former colleagues immediately after they leave office, and allow the legislative inspector general to initiate investigations of alleged wrongdoing without the blessing of a panel appointed by the partisan leaders of the General Assembly, among other changes.

“Is there more work to be done? For sure. And I think that was something that we reiterated in the debate back in the spring, that this wasn’t going to be the last time we were ever going to look at ethics,” Burke said. “So I guess it’s just surprising to me that this strategy was employed by the Republicans to stop the bill from becoming law.”

House Democrats earlier this year ousted their longtime leader, former Speaker Michael Madigan, who is under the cloud of the federal probe. Madigan, who also headed the state Democratic Party until February, has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing, but ComEd admitted in federal court last summer that it engaged in a yearslong bribery scheme aimed at currying favor with the longtime Southwest Side power broker.

If the Democrats fail to get back to Springfield with the necessary votes in time, they will face mounting pressure to pass a new ethics package heading into 2022, when Pritzker and all 177 seats in the legislature will be on the ballot. The issue could become a liability for Pritzker’s reelection effort after the governor called for lawmakers to tackle corruption in his past two State of the State addresses.

Pope, whose resignation as legislative inspector general is effective Dec. 15, and her two predecessors long have called for more independence for their office, but she and other critics contend the measure approved this spring further weakened the office, which she called “essentially a paper tiger.”

Following Pope’s resignation, House Republicans joined reform advocates in calling on Pritzker to use this amendatory veto powers to strengthen the proposal.

“Unfortunately, Governor Pritzker chose to ignore our suggestions,” three GOP lawmakers wrote in a letter to Burke on Wednesday.

“In light of the failed vote last night to accept the governor’s amendatory veto, we are asking you to reconsider this inadequate ‘ethics’ legislation and begin earnest bipartisan work on comprehensive anti-corruption reforms with our caucus and all stakeholders,” wrote GOP Reps. Avery Bourne of Morrisonville, Mike Marron of Fithian and Ryan Spain of Peoria, the ranking Republican on the House Ethics and Elections Committee.

Bourne and Marron serve along with Burke on the eight-member Legislative Ethics Commission, which oversees the legislative inspector general’s office.

Supporters of the proposal approved this spring say it grants a major request from Pope and her predecessors: The inspector general no longer would have to get permission to launch investigations from the Legislative Ethics Commission. The commission’s members are appointed in equal number by the partisan leaders of the House and Senate.

But critics say the plan ignored requests to give the inspector general the power to issue subpoenas and to publish reports of founded allegations of misconduct by lawmakers without first going to the ethics commission. Pope and her predecessors have said there have been multiple occasions when the commission blocked the public release of a report detailing findings of wrongdoing by a lawmaker, at times due to a partisan deadlock.

The measure also would put new limits on the scope of the office’s investigations, critics say, preventing them from pursuing allegations that aren’t directly tied to a lawmaker’s public office.

Pope has stayed on for the time being and is assisting with the search for her replacement, but Kaplan, of Reform for Illinois, said filling the job for the long term may prove challenging.

“More power to anyone who wants to try to make a difference in that role, but I think we’ve seen three inspectors general now who have started with high hopes for being able to make a difference and just found themselves stymied and left in frustration,” Kaplan said.

While the debate over the plan has focused largely on the power of the inspector general, critics say it has other glaring weaknesses.

That includes a six-month cooling-off period before lawmakers who leave office can become lobbyists, far shorter than in many neighboring states. It also contains a gaping loophole: The prohibition only would apply to lawmakers who leave office with more than six months remaining in their term. Once the two-year term of the General Assembly to which they were elected is up, they’d be free to become a lobbyist the next day.

Another shortcoming, critics say, is the lack of a blanket prohibition on elected officials working as lobbyists at other levels of government, another issue that came to light through the federal investigation.

If Democrats don’t muster the votes to give their plan final approval before time runs out, they could attempt to pass a new proposal when they return to Springfield. Lawmakers are next scheduled to be at the Capitol in October for their fall veto session.

“Everyone knows exactly what needs to be done,” Kaplan said. “I don’t think the debate is about that. I think the debate is about what’s politically palatable among the members of the legislature.”

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