Officials propose tightening Illinois’ lax lobbying laws; leadership non-committal

By Medill Watchdog on December 31, 2011

Published: January 2, 2012

The state legislative inspector general said this week he will ask the Legislative Ethics Commission to draft a bill that would bar lobbying by lawmakers.

“Legislators should not be allowed to be paid to lobby on behalf of clients before any public body,” said Thomas J. Homer, who as inspector general monitors the ethical conduct of state lawmakers. Homer’s comments follow publication last weekend of “Public Duties vs. Private Interests” by the Medill Watchdog, a new initiative dedicated to innovative public accountability journalism.

Homer was one of several voices calling for stricter rules – including a few legislators and lieutenant governor Sheila Simon, in the wake of the Watchdog report, which also appeared on WBEZ and in the Chicago pages of the New York Times, produced by the Chicago News Cooperative.

Illinois law prohibits state legislators from lobbying at the state level, but nothing prohibits them from lobbying county or municipal officials. Similarly, while local officials may not lobby their own boards, nothing stops them from lobbying at other levels of government.  The law also stops short of prohibiting legislators from taking part in official votes even when they, or family members or partners, have a conflict of interest.

Medill Watchdog reported last weekend that more than two dozen public officials also are themselves lobbyists, or have relatives or business partners who are lobbyists. A comprehensive review of public records identified repeated cases in which the public officials took actions that were sought by their own clients, or clients of their relatives or partners.

The review found that other states more strictly limit lobbying activities by public officials, or restrict public officials from taking part in matters in which they have conflicts of interest. Nor is the issue strictly a question of legality: outside experts say that the problem is aggravated by a culture of corruption that has some officials adhering to the legal letter of the law, but not more.  An ethics officials in Pennsylvania, for example, said that state has no law barring lobbying by officials; but that he had never heard of the issue arising.

But whether any tougher measures are enacted depends, in large part, on the support of legislative leaders, which has not yet been visible.

Senate President John Cullerton, who has registered in the past to lobby, said that for now, Homer’s proposals are a matter for the Legislative Ethics Commission to consider.

“If legislation is filed, we will fully review the issues and implications of legislative action on this topic,” said Cullerton’s spokeswoman, Rikeesha Phelon.

Steve Brown, spokesman for Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, said the speaker would need to see any proposal before supporting it. He added that “there are other provisions in state law that protected the public from wrongdoing, and that’s the goal here.”

He also questioned whether conflicts arose frequently enough to justify a new law. “If it’s not a problem, we do not need to create a bunch of trip wires for people as they live their lives,” said Brown.

State Representative Fred Crespo, Democrat of Hoffman Estates, said he will reintroduce a bill that bars lobbying by legislators at any level. The bill has never made it out of committee, but Crespo said he’s rewritten the bill to address concerns raised by other legislators, mainly that his proposed ban did not distinguish between contract lobbyists and those who must register as part of their jobs, such as legislators who direct non-profits.

Last August Homer urged the legislature to tighten the ethics law, which he called “weak medicine indeed,” to impose potential penalties for ethical violations. But Homer now is proposing that the legislature go farther, and prohibit all lobbying by legislators.

Homer said the issue is longstanding, and said it first concerned him when he served as a state representative in 1994. “It leaves too much potential for a ‘you-rub-my-back-and- ill-rub-yours’ situation and raises specter of quid pro quo,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Simon said Tuesday that she too felt the law was too weak. She also said she’ll push for greater disclosure of economic interest for legislators who have family members who lobby. She said the information on the current forms does not provide enough information for citizens to understand how their government is working. “People need more information to decide if there are conflicts.”