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Not as easy as it looks

Friday, Jan 31, 2020

* Hannah Meisel at the Daily Line

During his State of the State address Wednesday, Pritzker said there should be better disclosure of possible conflicts of interest lawmakers have, and consequences for voting on bills that pose a conflict.

“Disclosure of conflicts of interest and punishment for breaching them must be included in any ethics package for us to truly clean up government,” Pritzker said.

But several witnesses who testified Thursday said the current statement of economic interests disclosure form is anemic, and lawmakers who submit false information face no punishment. In addition, those who vote on bills that pose a conflict are rarely sanctioned.

“We do have a very casual attitude about conflicts of interest,” Better Government Association Policy Director Marie Dillon said.

* From the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act

When a legislator must take official action on a legislative matter as to which he has a conflict situation created by a personal, family, or client legislative interest, he should consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation. If that is not feasible, he should consider the possibility of abstaining from such official action. In making his decision as to abstention, the following factors should be considered:

    a. whether a substantial threat to his independence of judgment has been created by the conflict situation;

    b. the effect of his participation on public confidence in the integrity of the legislature;

    c. whether his participation is likely to have any significant effect on the disposition of the matter;

    d. the need for his particular contribution, such as special knowledge of the subject matter, to the effective functioning of the legislature.

He need not abstain if he decides to participate in a manner contrary to the economic interest which creates the conflict situation.

If he does abstain, he should disclose that fact to his respective legislative body. […]

When, despite the existence of a conflict situation, a legislator chooses to take official action on a matter, he should serve the public interest, and not the interest of any person.

* From BGA Policy Director Marie C. Dillon’s testimony yesterday

It’s easy enough to fix. Make those guidelines mandatory, and require lawmakers to disclose when they have a conflict of interest and abstain from voting. And add penalties for violations, as the original commission intended.

But it’s not that easy, as Dillon herself found when she was unable to cogently answer specific questions from House Majority Leader Greg Harris about how farmers, for instance, should be voting in the General Assembly.

Another panelist dismissed Leader Harris’ farmer question as a “hypothetical,” but Harris countered that this wasn’t a hypothetical in the least - it is an everyday issue and is as concrete as an issue can get for legislators.

It wasn’t until Common Cause Illinois’ Georgia Logothetis spoke that the “right” answer was finally heard from the panel of testifiers. To paraphrase, if legislation benefits agriculture in general, then farmers can vote on it. If the legislation benefits a farmer-legislator in particular, then the legislator can’t vote on it. In other words, statewide farmland property tax relief? Go for it. Property tax relief focused on farmland in your section of your township? Run away.

Even so, the reformers inexplicably offered no specific statutory language to address this serious problem.

“How do you not come with a copy of a model law from X state and say, ‘Here, let’s try this, it works there,’” marveled one baffled supporter.

Many, many legislators want reform, but they’re absolutely not going to pass any regulatory laws that will unexpectedly or unfairly trip them up. “We’ll know it when we see it,” is, to them, a recipe for disaster. They’ll pass broad, draconian laws and let the executive branch sort out the rules for everyone else, but not when their own necks are on the line.

Nope, nope, nope. One wrong vote and poof goes the career. Ain’t gonna do it.

Most legislators want reform, but they also don’t want to pay the ultimate price or be eternally dragged through the mud by over-zealous, nitpicky investigators because they were too busy, ill-advised or incompetent to properly fill out some form that nobody will read until somebody gets raided by the feds.

Instead, they want “crystal clear” language to make sure that honest legislators always know where the line is, as Sen. Dan McConchie (R-) explained during yesterday’s hearing. The reformers should’ve brought specific proposed language with them. Instead, some couldn’t even answer basic questions.

* Other states do things differently

Nicholas Birdsong, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said conflict of interest laws vary widely among the states. He said 35 states require lawmakers to recuse themselves from votes in which they have a conflict of interest and 13 states, including Illinois, leave the decision up to the lawmaker.

In Tennessee, where the rules are different in each chamber, the state House has a mandatory recusal policy and the state Senate has a discretionary policy. Utah, Birdsong said, requires legislators to vote if they are present, regardless of whether they have a conflict.

Birdsong said some states have adopted the idea that lawmakers should be able to vote, even if they have a conflict of interest, because “legislators are elected and they’re obligated to vote according to the will of their constituents regardless of whether or not it serves or hurts their interest, and so having these sort of mandatory recusal rules essentially limits their ability to do their jobs.”

More state info is here.

Discuss.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

29 Comments
  1. - Charlie Brown - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:23 am:

    The Chicago Tribune gave its departing CEO a multi-million dollar no-bid contract and its editorial page regularly weighs in on issues where substantial conflicts of interest are never disclosed.

    If the Fourth Estate believes the formal branches of government need a stronger ethical code, they ought to lead by example.


  2. - Precinct Captain - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:23 am:

    It’s easier to throw stones than build the house.


  3. - Responsa - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:25 am:

    Paddy Bauler said it decades ago and he knew both his audience and his city. Indeed, this is not going to be easy.


  4. - MG85 - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:25 am:

    If you want to be a state legislator or statewide office holder, it should be unlawful to obtain outside employment or hold an active role in a business.

    I’m willing to pay the additional 12 million a year in taxes (double the legislative salaries) which would increase the annual budget .021% (twenty-one thousandth of 1 percent). That means a taxpayer would have to pay 21 thousand dollars in taxes to add an additional penny to their tax bill.

    I’ll take that trade off.


  5. - Nick Name - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:27 am:

    “he should consider”

    Good golly.


  6. - JSS - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:28 am:

    I believe some professions have the ability to consult with a ethics/conflict specialist privately. I think Illinois attorneys can either consult internally in their firm or with the ARDC whether any potential conflict of interest exists. Might be a starting point to permit legislators to consult privately with officials appointed to bi-partisan conflict panel. Maybe ex-legislators could constitute the panel.


  7. - Rich Miller - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:34 am:

    ===double the legislative salaries===

    If you think they’ll do or say absolutely anything to get reelected now, how far do you think they’ll go if it’s their only allowed source of income? Defeat could mean financial ruin, particularly if the revolving door bill passes.


  8. - DTAG - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:35 am:

    I dont understand why it’s ok for farmers to vote on bills that benefit agriculture statewide. That has so many loopholes how does property tax relief for farms benefit agriculture, how do we know farmers arent just pocketing the relief.


  9. - George - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:42 am:

    MG85- Is that you JB? Willing to pay out of your own pocket to double your workers paycheck?


  10. - walker - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:45 am:

    Sen. McConchie continues to impress. He cuts thru the froth, and goes directly to workable solutions.


  11. - MG85 - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:49 am:

    ==If you think they’ll do or say absolutely anything to get reelected now, how far do you think they’ll go if it’s their only allowed source of income?==

    Well, let’s ask President Harmon, Senator Andy Manar, or President Pro Temp Bill Cunningham.

    I believe all 3 currently have self imposed exclusions to outside employment. Are they out here making outlandish claims/breaking the law to stay elected?

    To answer your question, tho, I expect elected officials to follow the law. I also expect law enforcement to hold them accountable when they don’t. Ya know, trust but verify.


  12. - Moe Berg - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:54 am:

    The goo-goos had their moment to shine and were mostly unprepared.

    There’s an aspect of “reform” that’s kind of a racket. Collect your corporate donations, celebrate yourselves at banquets and dinners, and pat yourself on the back for being on the side of good.

    If you wanted to find out more about the BGA’s donors through its annual report, the last one they posted on line is from 2016. It’s now 2020. Where is 2017 and 2018 at least? Come on transparency organization, how about a little more transparency?


  13. - A Jack - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 10:57 am:

    The current ethics disclosure is fairly anemic. I would suggest also requiring a copy of the person’s federal tax return and a follow up process if the disclosure doesn’t match what is appearing in the tax return. For example, if the tax return discloses rental property of one million and the ethics has no interest in rental property, then that could be cause for follow up.

    Of course they could choose not disclose extra income on their federal taxes, like Sandoval did, but then they have bigger problems on their hands than leaving potential conflicts off their disclosure.

    With Sandoval’s case though, if the person hides all that income it will be difficult to ferret out unless you greatly expand the role of the Auditor General’s office to be able to look at municipalities.


  14. - Deez guts - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 11:07 am:

    When are reporters going start disclosing how they have been influenced by former reporters who are now paid by corporate interests as “PR specialists” to spin the reporters latest story? And do these “PR specialists” ever disclose who is paying them? Nope! And this whole notion of being a “lobbyist for the good guys?” What the heck kind of standard is that? You’re either leveraging relationships/using your knowledge to change law/policy or you’re not. Reforms for thee, etc., etc. What a joke.


  15. - thechampaignlife - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 11:18 am:

    A grandfather clause could help with the unease of current legislators tripping themselves up. With turnover the way it is, half or more of members would be using the new rules in less than a decade.

    In terms of COI laws, I wonder if the fiduciary laws could be adapted for legislators. Fiduciaries and lawyers must act in the best interest of their client. Legislators could have a similar obligation to their constituents.


  16. - Charlie Brown - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 11:24 am:

    === There’s an aspect of “reform” that’s kind of a racket. ===

    Kind of?

    I mean, Faisal Kahn was totally outed as a mouthpiece for the Illinois Policy Institute, have we all forgotten that?

    The BGA feted Michael Ferro after he threw Dave McKinney to the wolves, penned a love letter to Rauner in the guise of a newspaper endorsement, and when word broke of sexual harassment allegations and insider dealing involving Ferro, they said Nada.

    https://m.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2016/08/22/after-bga-leaders-depart-survivors-vote-to-unionize


  17. - Thomas Paine - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 11:26 am:

    === A grandfather clause ===

    Your solution to rooting out legislators who are acting totally out of self interest is to enact a law based totally on self interest?

    Way to claim the moral high ground.


  18. - thechampaignlife - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 11:28 am:

    @Thomas Paine: If it is a better future or status quo permanently, I’ll take what I can get. Sure, I want better now. What do you have that gets us to 60/30/1?


  19. - A Jack - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 11:30 am:

    @thechampaignlife. I agree with your thought about a fiduciary relationship. But how could one prove that a GA member didn’t have their constituents interests in mind when they voted? The only way I can think of is commissioning a poll of the member’s district to see how they would have wanted the member to vote. But even then it might be difficult to hold an elected official accountable for not voting the interests of their constituents until they run for reelection.


  20. - thechampaignlife - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 11:30 am:

    I should clarify:

    If it is a choice between a better future, or keeping the status quo permanently, I’ll take what I can get. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of progress.


  21. - Thomas Paine - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 11:33 am:

    The reason people struggle silently with this issue is that no one has a problem with lawmakers that own farms voting on legislation benefiting agriculture, but a lot of people have a problem with lawmakers that have financial interest in gaming voting on legislation that benefits gaming.

    At the same time no one complained about a lawmaker with financial interest in nursing homes carrying legislation involving nursing homes, and no one seems to have batted an eye that the senator who carried cannabis legislation is now making $250K a year overseeing the cannabis industry.

    It’s tough to craft a law because the standards are all so arbitrary, whimsical and capricious. That’s why we tend to leave the determination of whether such individuals should be punished up to the voters that sent them.


  22. - A Jack - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 12:24 pm:

    And I certainly agree with ballot box accountability, except that in many cases the official runs unopposed and therefore doesn’t face accountability. I think the parties let us down by not running candidates in districts they may not be able to win.

    That is an argument against gerrymandering. Although in my case since my elected officials almost never vote they I would like and always run unopposed, I hope they do get gerrymandered out of my district.


  23. - Father Ted - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 1:03 pm:

    Moe Berg nailed it. The Goo Goos generally have their hearts in the right place, but don’t practice what they preach. For example, the BGA lists every public employee’s salary and pension info on their site, but don’t release their own salary info. If they’re all about transparency and accountability, why doesn’t it apply to them if they’re asking for money? And no- scouring the interwebs to try to find their 990 is not the same thing.


  24. - thechampaignlife - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 1:13 pm:

    ===how could one prove that a GA member didn’t have their constituents interests in mind when they voted===

    Many times it may be unclear. But, if they acted in a totally self-interested way (e.g., pushing a special law that only benefited them), this would at least give grounds for removal from office.

    ===the standards are all so arbitrary===

    I agree, but that is why a law is so important. With so many non-competitive elections, accountability is hard to reach. Maybe we need a panel comprised of statistically representative voters that sets the rules for members of the General Assembly. Things like district maps, compensation, conflicts of interest, and ballot access should not be controlled by the very people who benefit from them.


  25. - Soccermom - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 1:26 pm:

    There is no way to craft a law that will end conflicts of interest. Consider the whole issue of spouses’ businesses. Frankly, I have no idea who my husband represents, or what clients he’s going after. And his clients have no idea who I am or what I do.

    Not to mention — I believe strongly in my husband’s work (he serves as bond counsel for municipalities.) I think state and municipal bonds are really good things: They build stuff that communities need, and they drive local investment. So is it a conflict of interest if I were to vote my conscience on something related to municipal bond law? I mean, yeah, my husband does that work. That’s one of the reasons we’re together — we both care about this stuff.

    And where do we draw the line? Do we have to investigate our siblings’ investments? What if they don’t want to tell us? And how direct does this stuff have to be? My bro-in-law works at Lurie. Would that mean I’d be conflicted out of anything related to healthcare?

    This is one of those things that a friend of mine once said, “It sounds good if you say it fast.”


  26. - @misterjayem - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 1:26 pm:

    “If you want to be a state legislator or statewide office holder, it should be unlawful to obtain outside employment or hold an active role in a business.”

    This would ensure that small business owners and family farmers become absent from the legislature.

    – MrJM


  27. - theCardinal - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 2:13 pm:

    MG 85 there is also all the pension cost with the additional increase not that its a big deal but… Every elected official fills out a financial ethics statement and im betting that most know when they cross a line or are about to. Those that want to cross the line for their own benefit will anyway.


  28. - lake county democrat - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 3:16 pm:

    Disclosure is near-meaningless. Recusal is everything.


  29. - Not for Nothing - Friday, Jan 31, 20 @ 3:38 pm:

    @Cardinal - that wouldn’t really be a factor. With all the turnover in the General Assembly, new members aren’t enrolling in GARS.


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