What happened to ethics reform in Illinois government? Why watchdogs have some hope.

  • Former Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan arrives at his Chicago home on March 2, the day he was charged with racketeering and bribery.

    Former Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan arrives at his Chicago home on March 2, the day he was charged with racketeering and bribery. Ashle'e Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

  • Daniel Didech

    Daniel Didech

  • Then-state Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago in 2020. He pleaded guilty on March 8 to a federal embezzlement charge.

    Then-state Sen. Thomas E. Cullerton walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago in 2020. He pleaded guilty on March 8 to a federal embezzlement charge. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times

  • Alisa Kaplan

    Alisa Kaplan

By Maria Gardner
Updated 5/16/2022 3:50 PM
This story has been updated from the originally published version to correct that the ethics bill the General Assembly approved in 2021 did authorize the legislative inspector general to start investigations without first getting permission from the state ethics commission.

Ethics reform advocates say they're disappointed but not surprised little was done during the Illinois legislature's spring session to curry the public's trust, even as former House Speaker Michael Madigan's indictment in March put public corruption back in the spotlight.

But they still hold out hope for the future.


"You would think after what we saw with former Speaker Mike Madigan, there would be a fire under legislators ... especially with an election coming up," Bryan Zarou, director of policy for the Better Government Association, said regarding the inaction on ethics reform.

The BGA plans a new push for ethics reform this summer, with a set of proposals to be considered for the 2023 legislative session.

The subject will soon be brought to the forefront of public attention again, with former state Sen. Thomas Cullerton's sentencing scheduled for June 21 and Madigan's next status hearing set for Aug. 2.

Cullerton, a Democrat from Villa Park, pleaded guilty March 8 to a federal embezzlement charge for receiving nearly $250,000 in pay and benefits from the Teamsters union without working for it.

Madigan, once the most powerful politician in Illinois, was indicted on charges of racketeering and bribery and accused of running a "criminal enterprise." He has pleaded not guilty.

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The resistance to ethics reform in Illinois is no different from that in other parts of the country, Zarou said.

"The party in charge would rather not change the rules that have benefited them," he said. "They want to limit anything that gets in the way of ruining the chance of gathering power."

Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois, added that ethics reform is not popular among legislators because they don't like passing restrictions on themselves.

Polls show Illinois residents have very low trust in their government but have also "adjusted to having low expectations," she added. Still, Kaplan hopes the attention given to the corruption cases does start to "lay the groundwork for great changes in the future."

Illinoisans are good at spotting corruption, but "it's not always easy for them to hold their officials accountable for it," she said.


Zarou said that without urgency for reform from the public, "legislators are going to continue to go as business as usual."

But some legislators disagree with the reform groups, arguing many of the new rules in the 2021 ethics bill are still being implemented.

One of the changes in the 2021 bill requires public officials to provide more information about their personal and business finances on economic interest statements. The Illinois Association of School Boards criticizes the change, saying it "lacks clarity on definitions and requirements."

"We're trying to find the right balance," said state Rep. Daniel Didech, a Buffalo Grove Democrat and a member of the House Ethics and Elections Committee, in response to the criticism of the new changes. Didech was one of 19 Democratic representatives who opposed Madigan for speaker of the House, leaving him six votes short to secure his reelection.

The House Ethics and Elections Committee met eight times, while the Senate's Ethics Committee -- led by state Sen. Ann Gillespie, an Arlington Heights Democrat -- did not meet once during the session. Gillespie, similar to other Democrats, said the 2021 ethics bill was a good start.

Ethics groups, though, say the 2021 ethics bill did not go far enough.

"Some of these bills may sound good on the surface, but if you look at them closely, they start looking like Swiss cheese," Kaplan said.

The bill allows for legislators who retire to become lobbyists six months after leaving office. Watchdogs generally call for at least a one-year gap, a standard common in other states.

Reformers also had called for empowering the legislative inspector general to investigate cases of misconduct. The 2021 ethics bill gave the watchdog the authority to start investigations without having to seek approval from the state ethics commission, but does not permit subpoenas without the commission's approval.

While little effort was made to limit actions by legislators this year, the General Assembly did pass House Bill 716, which limits what judicial candidates can raise from nonprofit groups and individual donors, according to Capitol News Illinois. The bill is in response to a campaign that cost Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride his retention election in 2020.

The Chicago Tribune estimated the cost of the campaign to remove Kilbride, a Democrat, at $11.7 million, with Republican benefactor Ken Griffin putting up $4.5 million and out-of-state groups contributing significant sums to the no-retention effort. Didech said the bill will increase the trust residents have in the judiciary system.

"When you have such a significant amount of out-of-state money coming in a race to affect our judiciary system, it raises a lot of questions about who actually controls our judiciary and whether that's an appropriate influence for these out-of-state interests," Didech said.

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