Ill. officials face choice on response to scandal

'Gut-check time': Ill. officials face tough choices on responding to government corruption

CHRISTOPHER WILLS
AP News

Apr 29, 2009 05:07 EDT

With one governor in prison and another under indictment, Illinois officials must choose between patching holes in current ethics laws or attempting a top-to-bottom overhaul that might hurt their own interests.

"We believe this time in Illinois government is gut-check time. The nation's eyes are upon us," Patrick Collins, head of an ethics commission, warned Tuesday. "Will we get meaningful reform?"

Collins and the rest of the Illinois Reform Commission issued an 88-page report saying Illinois should limit the size of campaign donations, restrict the power of legislative leaders, give state law enforcement a bigger role in rooting out corruption and keep a closer eye on how government spends money.

But key legislators made clear they have their own ideas about the best way to fight corruption in the wake of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's indictment and removal from office.

They question the need to limit political money or change how the Legislature operates. They're cool to the commission's suggestion of reducing the role of lawmakers in drawing legislative districts.

"It would be a serious mistake for anyone to assume that just because the Collins commission came out with a list of suggestions, these suggestions are automatically the Holy Grail," said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who sits on a special committee studying government reform.

They promise to deliver major improvements but not necessarily fundamental changes in Illinois government and politics.

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, described it as eliminating the weak spots in Illinois law — or "taking away the hiding places" exploited by dishonest officials.

Brown emphasized that even if lawmakers reject some of the commission's ideas, they will probably end up approving many others.

"I think at the end of the day there will be more agreement than disagreement," Brown said.

Advocates for a major overhaul are eager to act now, while Illinois residents are focused on corruption.

First, Republican Gov. George Ryan was sent to prison on federal corruption charges. Then Blagojevich, his Democratic successor, was booted out of office over accusations that he repeatedly tried to use his official power to raise political money and line his family's pockets. Then Sen. Roland Burris offered conflicting stories about how he was appointed to the Senate by Blagojevich, triggering a perjury investigation.

Even for a state infamous for corruption, the series of scandals outraged the public. Officials scrambled to demonstrate their commitment to good government.

"We have a rare moment in time where the public believes that public corruption and ethics reform is the No. 1 issue in this state," said Brad McMillan, a member of the Illinois Reform Commission.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who appointed the reform commission, said he couldn't endorse its recommendations until he gets a chance to study them. But he sounded the same warning about the need for comprehensive changes, calling this a "moment of truth" for Illinois.

In fact, he went even further than the commission in some areas, saying voters should have the power to recall corrupt officials and suggesting public financing of political campaigns.

The governor's commission is just one group weighing in on how to clean up government. A joint House-Senate committee is still studying possible reforms, outside groups such as the CHANGE Illinois Coalition have their suggestions and individual officials have spoken up.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the commission is bound to stir up opposition by proposing changes in the way the Legislature operates — for instance, by suggesting term limits for leaders. But he said it would be a mistake for lawmakers to ignore such an ambitious, detailed plan.

"I think it's probably a 'throw the kitchen sink in' time in state history," Cross said. "It's kind of a crisis time."

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Associated Press writer Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report.

Source: AP News