Michael Madigan Indictment Spurs Calls for Reform in Springfield

As former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan Wednesday pleaded not guilty to 22 counts of corruption, it was largely business as usual in the Illinois statehouse where until last year, Madigan reigned over the House for all but two years since 1983.

For Reform for Illinois director Alisa Kaplan, that’s the problem.

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While Madigan was singular in his hold on power, he’s not the only alleged bad apple.

“Certainly he’s not the only person in Illinois to get indicted for public corruption even in the last you know few months. We’ve just seen this grim litany of investigations, indictments, convictions, plea deals from a wide range of local and state officials,” Kaplan said. “It’s not a case of just one example or just one bad apple. This is a system that needs to be changed.”

In particular, the campaign finance system.

Madigan over time amassed tens of millions of dollars in the various campaign accounts he controlled as speaker and as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

“And he used that money to maintain and enforce loyalty around him. He would give it to candidates and officials who were loyal to him and use it fund their opponents if they weren’t. And so that was really one of the major sources of his power,” Kaplan said. “If we’re going to talk about really changing the system to make sure that someone like this doesn’t happen again we need to look at all those sources of power that led to one man having this amount of control over his party.”

Illinois in 2009, while Madigan was speaker, set caps on campaign contributions, but Kaplan says the system is weak and rife with loopholes that allow the legislatures’ top leaders to effectively skirt limits.

That allows them to exercise a level of control over other lawmakers that she said is “unusual and dangerous.”

Reform for Illinois advocates the creation of a public financing of campaigns, so candidates don’t have to depend on leaders.

Kaplan also says the legislature needs a truly independent watchdog; the previous inspector general resigned, calling the office a “paper tiger.”

In their indictment, prosecutors accuse Madigan of running a full-on enterprise that involved using his public office to help steer business to his private company, Madigan & Getzendanner, a law firm that handles property tax appeals.

Outside jobs have also landed other officials in trouble with the law, such as former state Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park) former state Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago), and Chicago Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward)

Kaplan says it’s time to have a serious conversation about reducing conflicts of interest related to outside employment.

“There’s nothing that undermines public confidence in their democracy than thinking that their representatives care more about their own personal bank accounts than they do about the public,” she said.

The current House speaker and Republican House leader each also work at law firms, but state Senate President Don Harmon left his firm when he won the top Senate job.

Legislating in Illinois is supposed to be a part-time job, and while Harmon says he’s reluctant to change that, he is limiting outside work for the top legislators.

“I have found it very useful to be able to focus exclusively on my work as Senate president and I think there may be some value in considering it for the legislative leaders,” Harmon said. “But I think there’s a real benefit of having a citizen legislature, where people come to the General Assembly with day-to-day experiences as undertakers or farmers or teachers or social workers.”

Harmon says with changes in leadership of the General Assembly, and an ethics law passed last year, that creates a revolving door that will require legislators to disclose more about outside income, it is a new day in Springfield.

Republicans say there’s more to do.

“I ask everyone in this chamber to join me in standing for real reform and lending practices that have brought massive corruption and scandal to our state,” state Rep. Deanne Mazzochi (R-Elmhurst).

Mazzochi said Democrats are holding up ethics measures, like a bill to end aldermanic privilege in Chicago, and a bill that would prohibit officials from using their campaign funds to pay criminal legal defense expenses, as Madigan is doing.

The day after Madigan’s indictment, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signaled there’s progress to be had.

“I’m fully committed to eradicating the scourge of corruption,” Pritzker said. “We’ve got much, much more to do and it’s clear from an indictment like this that our work is not done.”

Kaplan said she hopes that Pritzker means it.

In ‘21, Pritzker ignored calls to use his veto pen to strengthen the ethics law (Public Act 102-0664 / Senate Bill 539), which critics say only scratched the surface on issues like a revolving door for legislators who lobby and empowering the legislative inspector general.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Curtis Tarver (D-Chicago) is sponsoring a measure (HB5046) that would make state lawmakers ineligible to serve again if they’re convicted of a felony while in office.

Local officials convicted of felonies are banned from later running for municipal office, but state law only prevents state officials convicted of election-related felonies from attempting to return to Illinois government.

“Public officials are responsible for creating and maintaining the rule of law,” Tarver said in a statement. “Anyone who disregards this sacred responsibility is unfit to hold public office, and this bill will make it certain they cannot.”

The measure is currently stalled in Springfield.

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