Real reform in Springfield takes FBI raids, secret recordings and people going to prison

The state Senate and House may tighten restrictions on legislators working as lobbyists. Isn’t that nice?

SHARE Real reform in Springfield takes FBI raids, secret recordings and people going to prison
The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.


A state representative is secretly recorded allegedly offering a monthly bribe to a state senator, and nobody is overly surprised.

This is Springfield.

The state rep, Chicago Democrat Luis Arroyo, hands over the first $2,500 check at a restaurant, saying, “This is the jackpot,” and it sounds to us like old times.

How many times before have we heard this kind of dark banter by an elected official in a conversation secretly recorded by the feds?

This is Illinois. You could put together a highlight reel.

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“The cash register has not rung yet.” That’s what Ald. Ed Burke allegedly said on a secret recording. Burke was indicted in May on charges of extortion.

“Their thing is b-l-a-c-k first. M-o-n-e-y second. All right? Mine is different. I reverse ‘em.” That’s what former Ald. Virgil Jones said in a secret recording. He was convicted of pocketing bribes in 1999.

“I’ve got this thing and it’s (expletive) golden. I’m not just giving it up for (expletive) nothing.” That’s what former Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in a secret recording, referring to a U.S. Senate seat that was his to fill. He was convicted on charges of public corruption in 2011.

Every time this happens, the state Legislature or the Chicago City Council or the Cook County board or whatever legislative body is momentarily in the dog house expresses shock and indignation and makes a show of reform.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Springfield now. Reacting to the news on Monday that Arroyo had been charged in a federal criminal complaint, the Legislature this week and next will consider a bill to prohibit state legislators from working as lobbyists at the local level.

For the record, that’s nice. It’s astounding that Arroyo could work as a lobbyist for a company that wanted the Legislature to legalize sweepstakes gaming machines. That’s why he allegedly tried to bribe the senator.

No state elected official should be allowed to work as a lobbyist — at any level of government.

But let’s understand how much this is just window-dressing.

The culture of Springfield has always been about “Where’s mine?” One more incremental reform won’t change a thing. Unethical but entirely legal arrangements are common place, unchallenged by nobody in real power, encouraging a high level of tolerance for self-dealing by everybody, both legal and not.

What message does it send that the president of the Illinois Senate, John Cullerton, is a registered lobbyist in Chicago? As if this were not a blatant conflict of interest.

When the Senate president, working in his capacity as a lobbyist, seeks some action by city officials, you can bet they do their utmost to accommodate him. City Hall needs Cullerton’s help in Springfield.

And what message does it send that the speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan, runs a law firm that specializes in property tax appeals?

Madigan’s firm submits tax appeals to the office of the Cook County assessor, which for decades was run by Madigan’s pal Joe Berrios, who was defeated for reelection last year. At the very same time, Berrios, who also was a lobbyist, sought favors for his clients in Springfield.

Trust us, said Mike and Joe. Everything’s on the up and up.

Bruce Rauner wasn’t much of a governor. But he got it right last year when he proposed a ban on lawmakers making money as property tax appeals lawyers.

Maybe Luis Arroyo did try to bribe somebody, breaking the law. We shall see. But in what world is the entirely legal favor game — as played by a close club of lawyers, lobbyists and legislators — any more ethical?

Some of this might come crashing down. We can hope.

The U.S. attorney in Chicago, John Lausch, is leading a wide-ranging investigation into public corruption that has roped in the Illinois Capitol, City Hall, a handful of southwest suburbs — McCook, Lyons and Summit — and a small army of ComEd lobbyists. Lausch is handing out subpoenas like Halloween candy.

In several cases, it has been reported, the feds are seeking information related to Madigan.

Madigan and Cullerton have made it clear they favor tighter restrictions on lobbying, now that Arroyo has embarrassed everybody, and isn’t that terrific?

But real reform in Illinois, sad to say, usually comes by way of FBI raids, secret recordings, indictments, trials and convictions.

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