MADIGAN_AND_BROWN_999x823.jpg

Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, and Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, right, head to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office at the Illinois State Capitol on May 24, 2007. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Editorial: Mike Madigan’s a dubious messenger for high ideals

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In the biggest fight of his political career, against Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan says he’s simply trying to protect “core beliefs” of the Democratic Party.

That is a noble sentiment and we’d like to buy it. We have nothing but respect for those who take principled stands on the big issues of our day, such as the proper role of government employee unions and the size of government, whether or not we agree.

But Mike Madigan is a dubious messenger for high political ideals. His career is steeped in conflicts of interest. What’s good for him and his friends is not always good for the people of Illinois, and when he makes too little effort to avoid those conflicting interests, nobody should necessarily believe he’s putting the people’s business first. Who’s he really looking out for?

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Madigan’s latest conflict of interest, revealed by Chris Fusco and Tim Novak in Sunday’s Sun-Times, involves one small degree of separation. The Speaker’s top aide for some 30 years, Steve Brown, runs a private consulting business that includes clients who must go, hat in hand, to Madigan and the Illinois General Assembly for funding. Among Brown’s clients are a state agency and a state university. A third client is a nurse-assistant training program called New Start Inc., whose state funding more than doubled over two years.

Brown insists he has never lobbied Madigan or anyone else in Springfield to help a client, and he says he won’t take on a client who’s just looking to get Madigan’s ear. And, unfortunately, we’ll just have to take his word on that. Brown is not a state employee — Madigan pays him with state dollars under contract — so he is under no obligation under state ethics rules to disclose the names of all his clients.

If Brown has never once spoken to Madigan about a client’s needs, that would be remarkable. The Speaker and his spokesman have been professionally tight for many years, as reflected in the way Brown speaks for Madigan to reporters with complete confidence. But there you have it. We certainly can’t prove otherwise.

This sort of thing is sometimes called “honest graft,” a phrased coined in 19th century New York for a practice honed to an art in Chicago. If you’re a prominent politician or in good with one, you set up a law firm or insurance office or consulting business and the customers roll in, just playing the odds. You don’t have to cross a single ethical line, though the whole point is that some clients hope you might.

Madigan’s most outrageous conflict of interest has always been his light-footed two-step with Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios. Madigan, who runs a law firm specializing in property tax appeals, seeks reductions in his clients’ property assessments from Berrios in hopes of lowering their tax bills. Berrios, who runs a lobbying firm, calls on Madigan for help when a client needs something from Springfield.

Both men insist — and how dare anybody doubt them — that nobody is trading favors.

The current impasse in Springfield really is rooted in fundamental philosophical differences. Rauner and most Democrats hold very different views on such matters as collective bargaining, prevailing wage rules, taxation and worker’s compensation.

But given Madigan’s blatant conflicts of interest, it’s always tough to say what drives him most. The public good? Or personal gain and power?

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