It’s (past) time to end corruption in Illinois

Let’s fix the foundations. Corruption is born when politicians rig districts through gerrymandering.

The intrigue just keeps intensifying.

Who will plead to what? Where will it all end, we’re wondering, as news breaks on a near-daily basis in a broad and deep federal corruption probe of Illinois politics and government. But we also ought to be asking, what can be done to stop the corruption?

State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, has been indicted. State Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat, had his offices and home raided, and he has resigned from his Senate Transportation Committee chairmanship. Adding to the intrigue, Sandoval’s district encompasses House Speaker Michael Madigan’s. Indeed, WBEZ reported Madigan was named in a subpoena served on City Club of Chicago President Jay Doherty, also a ComEd lobbyist. WBEZ reported the FBI is looking into ghost payrolling at ComEd and whether people were hired in return for rate increases and other favorable government action.

One of Madigan’s closest allies, former ComEd lobbyist Michael McClain, had his home searched by federal agents in May. The FBI seems to be digging deeply into Madigan, ComEd, Exelon and its corps of lobbyists and executives. The Chicago Tribune reported that former ComEd lobbyists John Hooker and Fidel Marquez are targets. Hooker previously fronted a group that used Madigan’s lawyer to successfully sue to protect gerrymandering. Hooker, who is African American, engaged in scare tactics back then, saying redistricting reform efforts “had unintended consequences for black and brown minority districts.”

There’s also the Tribune report that workers for Madigan and his 13th Ward Alderman, Marty Quinn, took to repeatedly stalking and haranging people into signing forms revoking their support for Quinn’s 19-year-old opponent. In fact, 1,000 more people signed those forms than signed the original petitions. 

We can wag our tongues at the developments, but isn’t this also an opportunity to demand action?

In the wake of the raid on Ald. Ed Burke’s City Hall and ward offices, Chicagoans elected a reform candidate in Mayor Lori Lightfoot. She promptly curtailed aldermanic powers and passed an ethics ordinance that, among other things, restricts the types of outside jobs alderman can hold.

So, isn’t now an opportune time to make some structural state improvements? Let’s fix the foundations. Corruption is born when politicians rig districts through gerrymandering.

They also rig the system by throwing up barriers to the ballot and creating convoluted systems like the one that allowed 13th Ward workers to compel people to sign documents revoking their support for Quinn’s opponent.

Other states use digital technology that allows candidates to check someone’s voter registration before they sign that candidate’s petition. That has considerably trimmed the challenges to candidate petitions that tie up a candidate’s time and money when it could be spent campaigning and informing voters.

Does it seem equitable that it takes 5,000 voter signatures to run for statewide office in Illinois, but more than 12,000 to run for Chicago mayor and far more than that to run countywide in Cook? Let’s fix that.

Several of the ComEd lobbyists whose names have surfaced in the ongoing federal investigation are former state lawmakers. Yet various legislative attempts to stop former lawmakers from immediately launching careers as lobbyists have languished in Springfield. Surely, more can be done to strengthen conflict-of-interest laws in Springfield to prevent lobbyists and lawmakers from taking advantage of their power. And the annual financial disclosure statements lawmakers must file long have been a laughingstock. Now is when we ought to be looking to make those more detailed and useful.

The investigations are captivating, but how long will allow ourselves to be held hostage by weak ethics laws and convoluted electoral systems that repeatedly are gamed by our incumbents?

This column originally appeared on Crain's Chicago Business.