Every time a state legislator casts a vote in Springfield, you want to believe he or she is doing what’s best for you, not for some campaign donor, lobbyist or business associate.
That’s why we elect them — to do the people’s business, first and always.
But in Illinois, as in other states where serving in the legislature is a part-time gig and almost everybody has another job, conflicts of interest are part of the DNA of the legislative process, even when lawmakers take care to abide by the rules of ethics. When so many legislators wear a second hat, quite frequently as lawyers, their loyalty to you, their constituents, gets put to the test.
A case study in how that works was offered in Sunday’s Sun-Times by reporters Robert Herguth and Tim Novak, who examined the ethical conflicts faced by state Sen. Don Harmon, who is a lawyer. Harmon may not have violated any Senate rules, the Sun-Times found, but that’s hardly the end of the matter. The rules themselves are inadequate, perhaps inevitably so, failing to account for all the indirect ways political influence works in the real world.
Ultimately, short of prohibiting legislators from holding second jobs in any number of professional fields, the only sure-fire safeguard for ethical behavior, by Harmon and other legislators, is personal integrity. At the heart of clean government is not just good rules, but good people. We’ll just have to hope that Harmon, in a state known for crooked politicians, is one of those good people.
Harmon is one of seven partners in a law firm, Burke Burns & Pinelli, that does a significant amount of legal work for state agencies, local governments and government workers’ pension funds. He says he does not handle any of this sort of legal work for the firm, nor does he financially benefit from it. His total pay from the firm, he says, is less than the governor’s $177,412 annual salary, which is the cap on his pay under Illinois ethics law because his firm gets state business.
But you can see the problem. It’s silly to pretend to a distinction between what’s good for Harmon’s law firm and what’s good for Harmon. Over time, the success of a firm is good for every partner, regardless of who gets paid what in the short-run. And it’s standard procedure in Illinois for people looking for clout in Springfield to do business with a firm that has the best political connections, such as a partner who also is a powerful legislator. That would explain how House Speaker Mike Madigan got rich.
So when we learn that Harmon’s law firm handles legal services for two of the biggest pension funds for City of Chicago retirees, we find it troubling that he himself cast a vote last year in favor of a bill that set new funding levels for one of the funds. Harmon’s explanation for not recusing himself — that the board of the pension fund had not taken a position on the bill — is beside the point. This is a conflict of interest with, at best, a single degree of separation.
A fair question then: Did Harmon vote in what he saw as your best interests, as a taxpayer in Illinois? Or in the pension fund’s best interests? You can’t even know.
Our purpose here is not to beat up on Harmon, who is thought to be among the more diligent and informed legislators in Springfield. Dozens of others senators and representatives, working also as lawyers or insurance brokers or business executives, regularly face conflicts of interest not addressed by the written ethics rules.
Our purpose is to call attention to the problem. Because it hides in plain sight.
It might help if Illinois had a legislative inspector general. This person would have the authority to rule whether legislators are at least complying with existing ethics rules.
But that post, to nobody’s surprise, has been left vacant for more than two years.
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