Ethics reform commission leaders say tardy report expected in ‘coming weeks’

(The Center Square) – The Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reforms failed to release a report at the end of March, but a report is expected in the “coming weeks,” the group’s co-chairs said.

Last year the commission of lawmakers and representatives from the Attorney General’s office and the Secretary of State’s office was created following several lawmakers being indicted for crimes and others being under investigation. The group was given the task to come up with reforms to lobbying and ethics with a report due March 31.

The report was never filed. The commission hasn’t met since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois in early March.

“The Commission will meet to submit the final report to the General Assembly in the coming weeks,” said a joint statement from Co-Chairs of the Joint Commission, state Sen. Elgie R. Sims, Jr., D-Chicago, state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, and commission members state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, and state Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park.

The statement followed a virtual press conference from commission members state Reps Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, and Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis, and state Sens Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, and John Curran, R-Downers Grove, who demanded more hearings.

Wehrli said Illinoisans will continue to be hit with a corruption tax if it goes unaddressed. After listing several committees and commissions that have met during the pandemic, Wehrli demanded ethics reform hearings continue and blasted Democratic leaders he said are delaying.

“They’re going to simply try to play out the clock, get past the November elections, and not address this crisis in confidence that we have in the state of Illinois,” Wehrli said.

The Democratic co-chairs of the commission said it’s unfortunate Republicans are politicizing the issue and that a report will be released in the coming weeks.

“While our state is still hurting from the effects of the pandemic and cases continue to rise, we’re all trying to help our constituents the best we can, now is not the time to work against each other,” the Democratic members of the commission said. “We remain dedicated to finding meaningful ethics reform that restores the people’s trust in government and look forward to continuing the discussion in the coming weeks.”

Separately, Alisa Kaplan with Reform for Illinois, said she understands the push to get lawmakers on the record for reforms before many are up for reelection. But Kaplan said without reviewing the latest allegations involving ComEd, rushed reforms may miss the mark.

“There’s a need for more meetings, and more discussion, and perhaps even discussion of more rigorous oversight or expanded proposals than were considered back in the winter,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan’s group, along with other groups like the Better Government Association and Change Illinois, were part of several meetings addressing loopholes and providing recommendations earlier this year before the hearings were canceled.

Since the last time the commission met in early March, additional revelations regarding federal investigations of state lawmakers and lobbyists have surfaced. In July, ComEd entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in exchange for cooperating in an ongoing investigation. That agreement implicated longtime Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. He has not been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing.

Republicans on Monday said Madigan’s control over the campaign funds for the Democratic Party of Illinois was an ethical concern.

“[Madigan’s control of the political map every ten years] and then as well as the millions of dollars that he is able to raise and control, as the only elected official who is also the head of his state’s party, he’s the one that controls that checkbook,” McConchie said. “So when you control the map and you control the checkbook, those are two major aspects in the way that you help elect people.”

Earlier this month when asked about Madigan being in control of the party’s purse strings while dictating what advances at the statehouse, state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, shot that down. He said the discussion wasn’t about campaign finance.

“This is not a discussion about the Democratic Party of Illinois or campaign finance,” Manar said. “This is a discussion about strengthening statute to inject transparency and accountability for the conduct of legislators, lobbyists, and our leadership.”

Kaplan said on Monday campaign finance is definitely part of ethics reforms, and is foundational.

“Money plays an absolutely essential role in all types of corruption, obviously, and then how the powers that be controlled the state government establishment,” Kaplan said. “You can’t fully address these ethics issues without addressing campaign finance reform.”

Kaplan said campaign finance reforms are nearly as difficult as ethics reforms and will take time to get right.

Democrats and Republicans have for weeks been putting out various proposals with a lot of overlap, showing bipartisan support.

Both sides appear to agree on term limits for legislative leaders, more definitions and regulation for lobbyists and requiring a cooling off period between leaving the legislature and becoming a lobbyist, and certain procedures to hold legislators accountable through hearings or independent investigations from the Legislative Inspector General.

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