Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Spotlight on ethics — and politics

By Bethany Jaeger and Jamey Dunn
The legislature’s effort to improve government ethics in the aftermath of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich today shifted the spotlight onto partisan politics — and the ongoing public-perception battle of U.S. Sen. Roland Burris.

Illinois Republicans continued to bring attention to the way Democratic leadership, particularly Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, handled information regarding Burris’ appointment. She chaired the special House committee that recommended Blagojevich’s impeachment last month.

Currie today responded to accusations that she purposely withheld an affidavit filed by Burris, which explained that he had contact with a handful of Blagojevich’s advisers prior to his appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Republicans alleged that Currie did not share the affidavit as soon as she received it because it might have embarrassed Democrats.

From the House floor, Currie said she glanced at Burris’ letter and assumed the entire document contained routine follow-up information about his lobbying clients. Before the affidavit was shared with staff or with Republican committee members, Currie said, Burris released the document to Chicago media.

“Any suggestion that I engaged in a deliberate cover up, that I purposely delayed the distribution of the information, is totally false,” she said. “Any suggestion that I should do a better job of reading my mail in a timely fashion is a suggestion I enthusiastically and more than a little ruefully embrace.”

She has since posted on the committee’s Web site numerous follow-up letters regarding the impeachment report.

Rep. Jim Durkin, Republican co-chair of the special House impeachment committee, said he does not want the committee to reconvene because it could create a legal loophole for Burris to avoid prosecution for potential perjury. Durkin cited a state statute (scroll down to Sec. 32-2c). It says a witness can admit to giving false testimony during an ongoing trial and later correct the statement without facing perjury charges.

Some Democrats agree with Durkin. Reps. Jack Franks of Woodstock and Susana Mendoza of Chicago called on Burris to resign today, joining a growing list of state and federal officials doing so. Both Democrats said they did not want the House committee to hear from Burris again.

“It makes no sense to give somebody who we know lied, who purposefully lied — there’s no doubt in my mind — an opportunity allow himself to squirm his way out of potentially having to go before a court and explain his actions,” Mendoza said.

House GOP members called once more for special election to fill the seat. “This is so tainted, said Rep. Roger Eddy, a Huntsville Republican. “This is so dirty that the only disinfectant that will work is the will of the people. … I don’t have any idea why we continue to be afraid of an election in a democracy.”

Franks and Mendoza both called for a special election. Mendoza, who originally opposed a special election, said she deserved part of the blame for the current situation. She said that she assumed no one would have the “lack of integrity and the blind ambition” to accept an appointment from Blagojevich. “I never thought that this would happen.”

Joint ethics committee
When Democrats and Republicans of both chambers met to discuss ethics reforms this morning, GOP leaders cited the handling of the Burris affidavit and said Democratic control has been unfair and turbid. “The actions of the majority party have been anything but open, have been anything but transparent, have been anything to reflect sunshine over the last two to three weeks,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. He and other GOP leaders said the makeup of the ethics reform committee — 10 Democrats and 6 Republicans — fails to ensure bipartisan cooperation and sharing of information.

Durkin said the effort to improve transparency includes information between lawmakers. “Openness is not just with the public, but it also has to be between Republicans and Democrats. And I hope we can do a better job of it in the future.”

Democratic leaders -- House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton -- said the makeup of this committee, like all others, reflects the Democratic majority in the legislature. Madigan added that as the majority party, Democrats will be held accountable for the committee’s actions.

Ethics reforms in the works
The purpose of today’s ethics committee was to hear testimony about reforming the state’s Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act. Attorney General Lisa Madigan was among those who offered such recommendations. They include:
  • Require training of public employees who respond to FOIA requests.
  • Charge fines for people who violate the FOI law.
  • Codify the public access counselor, which she created in 2004 in response to Blagojevich’s administration, and allow that lawyer’s opinions to be legally binding rather than advisory.
  • Allow findings of ethical violations of state employees to be made public and to be referred to law enforcement.
Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in DuPage County, added:
Update provisions about the use of technology to produce documents to the public.
  • Tighten rules about when information is exempt from public access. Illinois currently has about 45 exemptions, while the average in other states is about 15, she said.
  • Ensure people are only charging for the actual cost of reproducing the documents.

The legislature’s committee will meet again at 9 a.m. February 24 in the state Capitol, while Gov. Pat Quinn’s ethics reform commission will meet at 11 a.m. February 23 at the University of Illinois at Springfield. All hearings are open to the public.

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