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Doug Finke

Official: Legislative conflicts law could use improvement

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked states on the level of their public integrity.

Overall, Illinois scored a D+, which wasn’t all that bad since the highest-ranked state earned only a C.

However, Illinois got a middle-of-the-road mark for how it deals with lawmakers voting on legislation on which they may have a conflict of interest.

A state received a top score if it had a law on the books that “requires state legislators to recuse themselves from any action that could confer a financial benefit to them or their immediate family, such as participating or voting in hearings, committees or on the floor.”

Illinois got the next lowest score because it has a law on the books, “but it does not define the recusal mechanism.”

Whether it should is a subject of debate. Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said Illinois’ laws on conflicts of interest could use some beefing up.

In Illinois, she said, it is up to the legislators to make the call on whether they should not vote on a bill where there is a potential conflict of interest for them.

“That leaves room for a lot of gray area,” Brune said. “It also puts the burden on them to make those calls, when this is something that should be more clearly written out in policy and isn’t up to personal opinion.”

In 26 other states, she said, lawmakers must disclose more information about their business interests that provides a better picture of their potential conflicts of interest. She also said there may need to be some kind of formal oversight of the process, by a commission or inspector general, to ensure that conflicts are minimized.

Mike Lawrence, who was a Statehouse reporter before serving as former Gov. Jim Edgar’s press secretary, said he thinks disclosure is a better option than outright prohibiting legislators from voting on legislation where a conflict might exist. That’s particularly true in the case of the General Assembly, which remains officially a part-time job.

“I’m not at a point where I think you ought to outlaw outside work,” Lawrence said. “Once somebody’s a full-time legislator, then re-election becomes a primary concern for them to stay in office. To put restrictions on the kind of issues legislators can vote for, I think, runs contrary to the idea we might want them to have other employment so they won’t be totally dependent on their legislative salary.”

Lawrence said there is also value to having people in the Legislature with various areas of expertise. The key, he said, is ensuring potential conflicts are disclosed so voters can determine whether a legislator is voting in his personal interest as opposed to the public interest.

Kent Redfield, retired political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said that if a hard prohibition existed on lawmakers voting on bills where there could be a conflict, it might be impossible to pass some legislation.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has repeatedly criticized both House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton because, he said, their private law practices present conflicts for them as legislative leaders shaping public policy. Madigan in particular has drawn scorn from Rauner for his legal practice helping clients reduce their property tax bills.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Madigan has “a personal code of ethics that prohibits his public service to benefit himself, his law firm or clients of the law firm.”

“That’s been in place since practically the time he came into the Legislature,” Brown said. “I think that’s all been examined over the years, and I don’t believe anybody has found something that contradicts that.”

Cullerton spokesman John Patterson said that Cullerton is a “partner at Thompson Coburn. It is a global firm employing hundreds of attorneys. The Senate President does not do property tax work.”

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