The costs of corruption
“Something needed to be done,” Reed said, describing lawmakers’ sentiment after Blagojevich’s ouster.
Indeed, actions were taken that contributed to Illinois’surprising score in the State Integrity Investigation. State legislators set new campaign finance limits, overhauled state procurement, created a path to recall a misbehaving governor and changed the state’s budgeting and planning procedures, the State Integrity Investigation found.
Measures increasing oversight and transparency of purchasing decisions sought to revive the public’s shaken confidence and to thwart future pay-to-play schemes. For the first time legislators restricted how much individual candidates, political leaders, political action committees and political parties could receive. Political committees had to report receipts and expenditures quarterly, rather than every six months. And candidates had to tell the State Board of Elections about any contribution of at least $1000 within five days; if the election is less than a month away, then the notification for those larger contributions must occur within two days.
These post-Blagojevich changes helped form the basis of Illinois’ comparatively high overall score for state government measures. But a closer look at some of the project’s individual categories shows substantial differences between the reform laws’ progressive intent and the actual practice of implementation and enforcement.
In a variety of categories making up Illinois’ score — Political Financing, Judicial Accountability and State Civil Service Management among them — the state earned high marks for the laws on the books, but scored far lower on the effectiveness of those same laws.
A particularly illustrative category: Public Access to Information.
Based in large part on the freedom of information overhaul passed in the aftermath of the Blagojevich scandal, Illinois received a perfect 100 for its public access to information, but only a 63 for the effectiveness of that law.
The public access counselor, a position first created by Attorney General Lisa Madigan (Speaker Michael Madigan’s daughter) and enacted as a permanent position as part of the 2010 law, has no authority to penalize public bodies that don’t comply with the Freedom of Information Act, the State Integrity Investigation found.
At a March panel during a freedom of information event, Public Access Counselor Sarah Pratt acknowledged that her office still had requests for review of FOIA requests that stretch all the way back to 2011. Pratt said she could use a 50 percent increase in lawyers for her staff.
Maryam Judar, executive director of nonprofit group the Citizen Advocacy Center, said a series of “blowback” provisions have been passed that dilute the law’s power even further. She cited provisions that allow agencies to take more time to respond to people who file many requests and that give agencies free rein to say that a request is “unduly burdensome.”
Even if the law had not been weakened, the number of journalists covering statehouses across the country,has plunged in the past decade, according to Yepsen of the Simon Institute. A 2009 study by the American Journalism Review found that the number of statehouse reporters had dropped in Illinois from 2003, and a Pew Research Center report showed that the state had one of the lowest ratios of statehouse reporters to residents in the country. This dearth of coverage has emboldened public officials who might otherwise not engage in illegal activity, he said.
Political financing is another troubling issue for reformers. Based in part on post-Blagojevich reforms, the state scored 90 percent on the sub-category of regulations governing the financing of individual political candidates as part of the State Integrity Investigation.
Yet state legislators also responded to the 2010 Citizens United decision by passing a bill in 2012 removing contribution limits that had applied to certain types of political action committees. This has contributed further to what Brian Gladstein, director of programs and strategy for Common Cause Illinois, called “a playground of opportunity” for special interest influence.
Possible corruption cure
The fight for a cleaner Illinois goes on, but no one sees a quick turnaround. Authors Simpson and Gradel, for instance, have delineated an eight-point plan to transform Illinois’ political culture.
Among the initial proposals: greater transparency and accountability, more inspectors general, a widespread program of civic education in schools and greater citizen participation in government and politics.
A proposal to require civics education is among more than a half-dozen accountability and transparency bills that were proposed in the Illinois General Assembly in the just-concluded legislative session. Legislators have since been called back, but mostly to deal with the budget.
Others would have required university police departments to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, forced local governing bodies to maintain websites with budget and contracting information and authorized the secretary of state to institute an Internet-based system for the filing of statements of economic interests.
In early May Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a bill mandating that the Governor’s Office of Boards and Commissions post online meeting notices and agendas at least 48 hours before each meeting. With one exception, the other bills all died somewhere in the legislative process.
Individual bills aside, Simpson and Gradel believe that transforming Illinois’ political culture could take several decades.
The task is complicated by Illinois being the most highly bureaucratized state in the country, according to a BGA analysis. With nearly 7,000 stand-alone units of government, Illinois has by far the largest number in the country, the BGA found.
This degree of bureaucratization provides fertile ground for corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness, according to Redfield, the emeritus professor.
The sheer size of government is daunting enough, he says, while the number of governmental units also cultivates in the public a transactional, relationship-based approach toward maneuvering in the system.
“Clearly, the schools and local government is too fragmented,” he said “That makes it difficult for citizens to know who to talk to …. It reinforces the idea that ‘I can’t get engaged with [this], politicians are in for themselves ….’ It reinforces the idea that it’s about connection, who has the inside track.
“Outcomes are dependent on personal relationships rather than value,” he said.
Of course, the State Integrity Investigation dealt only with state government, not local governance. Even in Springfield, though, reformers must also contend with a broader challenge: public cynicism. Many Illinoisans faulted Blagojevich not so much for his illegal activities but for getting caught. Reed of the Better Government Association said such attitudes give law-breaking politicians cover for their wayward behavior.
“Until we turn the corner and say that this is unacceptable, [and] you are shunned, not embraced, this is going to continue,” he said.
But Yepsen of the Paul Simon Institute said he believes the public has tired of the corruption and is ready to push for change.
“The politicians can’t hold this off forever,” he said. “I think over time, stuff will start to change. “I’m hopeful, anyway.”
This story was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times.