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Yanking out the chair? Bill would strip criminally charged legislators from key posts

Chicago Sun Times

Thursday, February 13, 2020  |  Article  |  Neal Earley

Legislature (56)

Hoping to make sure tainted lawmakers truly face the music, state Sen. Melinda Bush has introduced a bill that would bar criminally charged legislators from serving in any leadership or committee positions.

After state Sen. Tom Cullerton was indicted for allegedly embezzling money from the Teamsters, the Villa Park Democrat was removed as chair of the Senate Labor Committee.


But instead of losing a powerful leadership position and the additional $10,327 stipend that comes with it, Cullerton simply took over as the chair of the Senate’s Veteran Affairs Committee.


That game of musical chairs left one of his Senate colleagues scratching her head.


Hoping to make sure tainted lawmakers truly face the music, state Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, has introduced a bill that would bar members of the General Assembly who face criminal charges from serving in any leadership or committee positions.


Cullerton was thrown a lifeline by then Senate President John Cullerton, a distant cousin, who shifted his relative from one committee to another.


Under Bush’s bill, “it doesn’t become a decision of the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House,” the Grayslake Democrat said. “It’s just a matter of fact, a matter of law.”


Bush said she is talking with Senate lawyers to determine whether Tom Cullerton would lose his chairmanship if her bill became law, or if it would only apply to those charged in the future.


Tom Cullerton was paid $79,100 as a member of the Senate in 2019, according to records from the Illinois Comptrollers’ Office. He is accused in a federal indictment of taking $188,000 in salary and $64,000 in health and pension contributions as a ghost payroller for the Teamsters. Cullerton has pleaded not guilty and has vowed to clear his name.

Bush said her bill applies to all leadership positions – including House speaker, Senate president, majority and minority leaders, caucus whips and all committee positions. Additionally, she said it would bar any lawmaker charged with a crime from even holding a committee seat.


Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval was another powerful committee chairman who ran afoul of the law, although Bush’s bill would not have affected him, since he resigned before he was charged — but not before a chorus of calls for him to step down.


After the feds raided Sandoval’s home and offices in September, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others called on the Southwest Side Democrat to relinquish his post as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.


Worried that the investigation would taint the governor’s massive capital plan, — which Sandoval helped put together — Pritzker said Sandoval should either go voluntarily or Senate President John Cullerton should remove him.


 “Let me be clear,” Pritzker told reporters in October. “While Sen. Sandoval is under investigation, it’s in the best interest of the state that he no longer serve as chairman of the Transportation Committee. If he doesn’t step aside, he should be removed.”


But the Senate president resisted that call, arguing Sandoval had not been charged.


Sandoval did step down from the chairmanship more than a week after Pritzker called on him to do so. But he held his committee seat and remained a majority caucus whip, a position that involved ensuring Democrats have the votes they need to pass pieces of legislation.


Sandoval eventually gave up all of that when he left the Senate altogether in January. But he was not officially charged with taking a bribe until later that month, and pleaded guilty the next day.


So far, Bush’s bill has two co-sponsors, state Senators Julie A. Morrison of Deerfield and Laura M. Murphy of Des Plaines.


Last session, two other bills Bush sponsored dealing with ethics reforms went nowhere. Those bills, which would have given the legislative inspector general — the watchdog over lawmakers — more independence.


Those bills sat in committee and never came up for a vote, but Bush said recent events might pressure members of the General Assembly to act this time around.


“The simple fact is we need a legislative inspector general that has real autonomy,” Bush said.


Bush’s measures would allow the legislative inspector general to pursue investigations without needing the approval of the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is currently made up of eight lawmakers.


While state law says an ordinary citizen can be a member of the eight-member commission, in practice only legislators get appointed to it. Bush’s bill would require members of the general public be appointed to it.


Additionally, the bill would allow the legislative inspector general to issue subpoenas without needing approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission and require reports on current and former lawmakers be made public.


Another bill would allow the legislative inspector general to conduct investigations without seeking prior approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission.


“The problems with the oversight system relate mostly to independence and transparency,” said Marie C. Dillon, director of policy at the Better Government Association in a statement.


Dillon spoke in support of Bush’s bills at the last meeting of the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform, which was created to explore reforms in the wake of federal investigations into state lawmakers.


At the meeting, three current or former legislative inspectors general warned that the legislative watchdogs have little independence from the lawmakers they are charged with overseeing.


Julie Porter, who served as legislative inspector general from November 2017 to February 2019, wrote in a statement that the eight lawmakers sitting on the Legislative Ethics Commission quashed an investigation into a current legislator and voted to keep the report secret.


“That is precisely the system we have now in Illinois: the fox is guarding the henhouse,” Porter wrote in her remarks.