In my wildest dreams — cynics might call them my worst nightmares — the Better Government Association has a hundred employees, a budget of $20 million a year and a full service watchdog operation that shines a light on our most dystopian government center: The federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.
Sadly, we’re not there yet, and may never be, but we are watching Washington, in an Illinois-centric way, by following the flow of federal dollars to our home state, and holding the officials we send to the White House and Capitol Hill accountable.
The most visible sign of our commitment is the hiring of two Washington-based journalists with impeccable credentials — Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Chuck Neubauer, and his equally impressive partner, Sandy Bergo — to work on stories that often appear in the Sun-Times.
They uncovered the machinations of two former Illinois congressmen, one who scored a huge public pension by taking advantage of loopholes in the system, and another who became a highly paid consultant for companies that depended on his help when he was an elected official. And they told us about a federal construction contract that allowed politically connected Chicago developers to profit handsomely at taxpayer expense.
But the biggest splash came from their inaugural series on U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush’s tangled personal and professional finances.
The stories raised questions about:
+ A nonprofit founded by Rush, a Chicago Democrat, getting a $1 million donation from a telecommunication giant’s charitable arm to create a “technology center” in an impoverished, violence-plagued South Side neighborhood. The center was never built and we still don’t know where the million ended up.
+ Phone, cable and electric companies that depended on Rush’s help in Congress collectively donating more than $1.7 million — that includes the tech center grant — to charities affiliated with Rush.
+ Rush the “deadbeat” when it came to paying taxes owed to the government, and appearing to catch a big break on rent for his Chicago political office, in possible violation of federal law.
As Sandy and Chuck were reporting the story, Rush was reacting angrily — yelling and throwing our folks out of his congressional office when we started asking tough questions.
But now there’s other noise flowing from our inquiry.
The Office of Congressional Ethics, which investigates possible transgressions by House members, followed up on our series and found “substantial reason” to believe Rush’s acceptance of free rent was “in violation of Illinois state law, House rules, and federal law” and represents “impermissible gifts or special favors in violation of House rules and standards of conduct.”
The House Ethics Committee, which has the authority to discipline congressmen, announced it’s still investigating the matter.
They can issue public letters of disapproval or admonishment, ask the full House to censure a member, or in extremely rare cases, expel someone.
The committee can also decline to take any disciplinary action.
In newly released documents, it’s clear that Rush blames us, the messenger, and doesn’t fully accept responsibility for what we uncovered.
He told congressional investigators that we’re simply “hell bent on using this as an opportunity to raise a profile to show how diligent” we are.
If he means we care about how public officials act and how well their constituents are served, then yes — we’re diligent.
And our diligence includes a recommendation this tawdry situation cries out for, aside from any punishment: Ethics training for members of Congress.
According to an article in the National Journal last month, two Congressmen — a Democrat from Rhode Island and a Virginia Republican — “are urging congressional leaders to end what government watchdogs say has been a peculiar exemption for House members from such a mandatory lesson — annual ethics courses otherwise required of all House [staffers], senators, and Senate staffers.”
The congressmen are pushing for an end to the exemption when the new Congress convenes in January.
We’ll see what happens, but requiring members to know the rules and their ethical obligations is the least Congress can do. It’s stunning to think this training doesn’t already occur in the House.
Rush isn’t the only congressman with a cloud over his head, but our findings, and his apparent unwillingness to take full responsibility for his lapses, suggest a mandatory ethics refresher would do him, and many others, a lot of good.
So, yes, we’re not armed to fight all of dysfunctional Washington, but Chuck and Sandy will keep a close watchdog eye on the folks we send there from Illinois.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association