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Op-Ed: Can Gov. J.B. Pritzker turn his tough talk on corruption into action?


Thursday, November 7, 2019  |  Article  |  By Brett Rowland | The Center Square

Ethics, Campaign Reform, Transparency (12a) , Governor (44) , Pay to Play, Corruption Arroyo, Luis--State House, 3 , Madigan, Michael--State House, 22 , Sandoval, Martin--State Senate, 11
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has had a lot to say about corruption as more details have emerged about federal corruption probes aimed at state lawmakers, lobbyists and other elected officials.

"I am furious watching public officials – some from our own party – betray the public trust," the governor told Cook County Democrats on Tuesday. "I am disgusted that some people in politics seem to think that the old way of doing politics is the right way of doing politics. And it is time to change the way politics is done in this state, period."

Pritzker, mind you, knows a thing or two about federal investigations. In April, WBEZ reported federal authorities were investigating the governor and First Lady for removing the toilets from the mansion next door to his Gold Coast home to get a property tax break worth more than $330,000. A Cook County watchdog called it a "scheme to defraud" taxpayers. Pritzker later paid the money back. Pritzker also got caught saying some repugnant things on federal wiretaps of his conversations with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2008.

Last week in this column, I essentially dismissed Pritzker as being capable of pushing through meaningful legislative changes that would help reduce the corruption that is sinking Illinois just as fast as the state's unsustainable pension costs and high property taxes are.

Corruption is essentially a hidden tax. And a costly one at that.

Pritzker realizes this, as he told Axios last week.

"And I also view it as they’re throwing obstacles in the way of us accomplishing pension consolidation and lowering taxes, property taxes and other things in the state," the governor said. "There is a corruption tax that sits on top of everybody in this state and we need to get rid of it."

So let's see if Pritzker can do it. I'd love to be wrong on this one. But the governor's going to need to do more than stiffen up ethics rules under the dome. Yes, banning lawmakers from lobbying on the side is a good policy change, but it will take more than that to clean up Illinois.

Go ahead and take the gloves off the Legislative Inspector General. Give that post real power to root out wrongdoing. Require lobbyists to disclose more information about their clients and compensation. But remember, this is Illinois. Politicians here of all stripes have proven time and again that they can squeeze through every loophole.

Pritzker wasn't shy in calling for state Sen. Martin Sandoval to give up his leadership position on the Senate Transportation Committee. He beat Senate President John Cullerton to the punch on that one. He also didn't hold back after state Rep. Luis Arroyo was indicted for bribing an unnamed state senator. But both of those moves were reactionary. 

If Pritzker wants to take on corruption in Illinois, he's going to need to call out other clout-heavy lawmakers with longstanding conflicts of interest, including House Speaker Michael Madigan.

WBEZ reported this week that 15 of the 23 ComEd lobbyists in Springfield have ties to Madigan. ComEd has recently severed some of those ties. But that's hardly the only sign of smoke coming from Madigan's office.

The FBI secretly recorded a conversation where Madigan is pitching the services of his private law firm to a developer seeking to do business with the city. Former Chicago Ald. Danny Solis directed the developer to Madigan. That's ethically disturbing, to say the least.

And how about Madigan's dual role as chairman of the state Democratic Party and speaker of the house. He controls both the party's campaign cash that Democratic lawmakers covet and the rules to get legislation passed through his chamber. That's a clear conflict.

Madigan's consolidated so much power onto himself that other Democratic elected officials in the state are afraid to cross him. That's too much power.

If Pritzker is honest about cleaning up this state, he'll need to confront the speaker.