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Scandal puts focus on ‘toothless’ ethics law

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SPRINGFIELD (AP) – An investigation into House Speaker Michael Madigan’s role in a Chicago-area transit agency scandal has renewed scrutiny of an ethics law deemed “toothless” by the Legislature’s own ethics chief.

Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and arguably the most powerful politician in Springfield, has asked the Legislative Ethics Commission to review whether he violated any rules when he asked the Metra rail agency for a raise for an associate who had raised campaign money for him, and a separate accusation that he sought a job for another associate. He says he is confident he did nothing wrong.

The eight-member commission says it will take up the Madigan case. But it is working under a 1967 law that critics say is too vague on what constitutes a conflict of interest or other ethical violation, lacks sufficient penalties to enforce ethical behavior and in most cases prevents the commission from reporting its findings publicly.

Tom Homer, the state’s legislative inspector general, brought the case to the commission and said Madigan would be treated like any other member being investigated. He said he would follow the leads “wherever they go.”

At the same time, Homer is hoping the case brings more attention to his campaign to persuade lawmakers to strengthen the ethics law by publicizing investigations and allowing the censure and even suspension of lawmakers. In a report in 2011, he called the 46-year-old law “a toothless tiger.”

“Actions that may be considered unethical often fall through the cracks,” Homer, a former state representative and judge, told The Associated Press. “There’s really no punishment specified.”

So far, lawmakers have not supported Homer’s campaign, despite a rash of ethical reforms approved since the corruption scandals that sent former governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich to prison.

Many argue that the law works sufficient the way it is and prevents political opponents from using ethics laws for witch hunts.

“I don’t think we’re interested in people running amok and doing all sorts of wild goose chases and fishing expeditions looking for ethical violations for members,” said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, commission member and one of Madigan’s assistant House majority leaders.

Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown, said the speaker thinks the law on the books is “generally a good one.”

“I think some people may be chasing problems that don’t exist,” Brown said. “The (ethical) problems that we see in Illinois largely focus at the executive branch.”

Homer’s investigation is one of several into the Metra board’s $718,000 in severance payments to its ousted CEO, Alex Clifford, which some called a huge waste of taxpayer money. Clifford contended his job had been threatened after he resisted meddling by politicians who demanded patronage jobs and interfered in decisions.

He said Madigan sought a pay hike for Patrick Ward, a Metra employee who had raised campaign money for both the speaker and his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Clifford also said that Madigan sought a job for a person he did not name. The speaker acknowledged seeking the pay hike in a letter, saying it was intended only to reinforce a recommendation by Ward’s own supervisor, and the speaker’s spokesman said Madigan had no record of seeking a Metra job for anyone.

The annual budgets of transit agencies like Metra are largely controlled by the Legislature. Clifford said Metra board members told him he may have damaged the agency’s future funding by resisting Madigan’s requests.

Homer, a Democrat who served in the House leadership under Madigan in the early 1990s, and was an appellate court judge from 1996-2002, was appointed the state’s first legislative inspector general in 2003. In that role, he receives and investigates complaints of abuses of authority or misconduct by lawmakers and their staffs. He presents his findings to the commission, comprised of four Democrats and four Republicans who serve two-year terms and are appointed by the party leaders from the House and Senate.

In recent years, Homer has called for specifically barring legislators from voting on bills that would enrich them or their families. That, he says, should be coupled with extensive public disclosure about legislators’ financial activity and relationships. Current requirements offer very little insight.

The current law defines a conflict of interest vaguely as “a substantial economic interest, distinct from that of the general public.” The law’s “ethical principles” section states that its provisions “are intended only as guides to legislator conduct, and not as rules meant to be enforced by disciplinary action.”

The law’s chief failing, Homer says, is lack of enforcement power. The commission is permitted to fine a lawmaker up to $5,000, but has not done so since it was established under the 2003 reform. And, as of now, the commission is not required to make its findings public unless a lawmaker is fined.

Homer has found some support among legislators. Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, commission member and candidate for governor in 2014, has filed legislation to strengthen the conflict of interest law, but it failed to get out of committee.

“The legislation has been bottled up by the legislative leadership,” he said. “Hopefully (the Madigan case) will give Mr. Homer’s idea a swift kick in the tail to get enacted into law.”

Yet, reforms involving the very lawmakers who need to approve them often prove tough to pass, said Mike Lawrence, former director for Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Institute.

“On one hand you can make an argument there ought to be transparency in ethics investigations, but the fact is that it does create a situation where legislators could be falsely accused by their political opponents,” Lawrence said. “They’re willing to have (scrutiny) on the executive branch and other people, but they don’t want it on themselves.”

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