Illinois earns ‘D’ for judicial financial disclosure

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The Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. The level of disclosure in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was poor, with 43 receiving failing grades, making it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench. Despite the lack of information in the public records, the Center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country. Here’s what the Center found in Illinois:

Strengths:

Illinois judges are required to file two separate financial disclosures — one with the secretary of state’s office, the other with the clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court. Together, the level of disclosure on both forms helped Illinois earn the fifth-highest grade out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Judges must report sources of income beyond their judicial salaries, including their spouses’ employment. Illinois also asks judges to report the source and description of gifts they receive, along with information about trips paid for and conference fees waived. The state scored well in the accountability category, too: judges who willfully file false or incomplete statements can face fines or imprisonment.

Weaknesses:

Illinois does not require judges to report the value of gifts or reimbursements. Similarly, judges need not disclose the amount of income earned from their investments. Nor must they report the value of those assets. While the Secretary of State’s office posts the judges’ financial disclosure statements online, obtaining the forms filed with the Supreme Court clerk’s office requires a few more procedural steps. Individuals must file a formal request with the court and provide a specific reason for soliciting the public financial disclosure report. Additionally, judges are notified each time a member of the public requests their records.

Highlights:

In her 2012 financial disclosure, Justice Anne Burke reported receiving a “gift of travel, 7 days of hotel accommodations, meals, site visits and miscellaneous for two persons.” The gift, valued at $4,000, was given to the judge by the Niagara Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit “created in 2004 by a group of Turkish-American businessmen and educators in order to realize the vision of their spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen.” Gulen is a Turkish preacher whose spiritual teachings inspired the “Gulen movement,” a controversial Islamic movement whose followers have helped finance American charter schools. Burke does not state the reason for the gift. (Neither financial disclosure form requires her to do so.) The year before, according to Burke’s 2011 financial disclosure, the judge traveled to Dublin, Ireland, for a teaching trip paid for by John Marshall Law School. Burke, who did not respond to requests for comment, reported that the three-day trip, including airfare, food and lodging, cost $6,649.78.

For each of the last three years, Justice Robert Thomas has reported receiving “honorary memberships” to two Illinois country clubs, Royal Fox and Illini. His financial disclosure reports do not disclose the value of those memberships. In 2011 and 2012, Thomas also reported receiving “Notre Dame tix” — he did not specify to what event — from Joe Power, who the judge described as a “friend and personal attorney.” Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.