Does Blagojevich arrest make Illinois the new New Jersey?

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This morning’s idle chatter in the Center newsroom raised the question of whether Illinois may have surpassed those perennially ethically challenged states of Louisiana, New Jersey, and Rhode Island in the contest for (drumroll) Most Corrupt State Ever. But in truth, Illinois has been one of our favorite whipping boys for years. The state’s ethics law flat-out failed on our ethics survey. Illinois did pass a new ethics law this year, but apparently it didn’t do much good.

Though, it’s not like Governor Blagojevich would have written on his ethics form, under gifts, “Received ambassadorship to Bahamas from president-elect in exchange for picking his Senate preference.” But one reason ethics experts like financial disclosure is that it reminds elected officials that they’re supposed to be acting in the public interest and that there are folks out there keeping an eye on them. In a state with a more robust ethics disclosure law, he might have had to at least disclose the high-paying corporate board positions he seemed to covet for his wife, allegedly in exchange for favorable treatment.

In Illinois, though, disclosure has never been more than a formality, a gesture to the rules most of us squares follow. Whereas many states entrust the oversight of financial disclosure to an independent ethics agency, in Illinois those forms go to the Index Department, where they’re filed in drawers. Really, really dusty drawers, most likely.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2006 interview with Renee Paine, an Illinois official, about the fate of the disclosure documents:

The Center: Do you audit these documents?

Ms. Paine: No, we just check to make sure that they are signed.

Blagojevich was pretty sure the FBI was listening, and he still cursed his way to conspiracy charges. People are now, no doubt, imagining what he might have been saying when he was sure no one was listening, watching, or even wondering what he was up to.

For a few laughs, check out Blagojevich’s disclosure form from 2006. Illinois corruption megastar Antoin Rezko makes a cameo on the third page!

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