When she first won election as Illinois attorney general in 2002, Lisa Madigan told a packed room of supporters: “We will fight . . . corrupt public officials.”
That same year she told an interviewer she would tackle political corruption “even if it involves my father,” Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.
If you don’t see the video above, click here and watch it on FOX32.
And her own campaign website still lists “Battling Public Corruption” as a top priority.
But while Lisa Madigan has made a name for herself embracing consumer-oriented causes – taking on, for instance, companies trying to rip off taxpayers – her office has done little to prosecute public corruption in Illinois, at least when it comes to the bigger fish in government, the Better Government Association and FOX 32 found.
That’s led critics – Republicans and even some Democrats – to question her commitment and motives.
“You go back to 2002, there’s been a lot of scandal, a lot of corruption in this state,” said state Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine.) “And we’ve got radio silence from the person elected to be our corruption watchdog, the attorney general.”
Lisa Madigan wouldn’t talk to the BGA or FOX for this story, but her aides say criticism that portrays her as a do-nothing on this issue is unfair and perhaps rooted in politics, not reality.
The bottom line, they say, is state law restricts the attorney general’s office from pursuing criminal cases – public corruption included – in most instances without the consent of county state’s attorneys, and the General Assembly has refused to give Lisa Madigan’s office broader authority, such as enhanced grand jury powers.
County “state’s attorneys have primary jurisdiction to prosecute criminal cases, and the Attorney General’s office does not,” Ann Spillane, Lisa Madigan’s chief of staff, said via email. “In practice, that means the Attorney General’s Office does not have authority to empanel a grand jury – the critical tool for conducting a criminal investigation and charging a defendant, and something that our office has sought.”
In 2009, shortly after ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was removed from office for misconduct, a group called the Illinois Reform Commission was re-commissioned by Gov. Pat Quinn to look at ways to fight corruption in the state. Lisa Madigan testified before that commission, saying “it is critical that we increase the ability of state-level prosecutors to fight public corruption.” She went on to push a plan to broaden grand jury powers, opening the door for the attorney general’s office to start busting more corruption.
The reform commission agreed, writing to Quinn that it “seems particularly important for the Attorney General to have the power to independently investigate corruption in state government.”
The General Assembly, controlled by Speaker Madigan, brushed aside most of the report and key elements of the law never changed. Lisa Madigan has supported other legislative efforts to enlarge the powers of her office, to no avail, her aides said.
Steve Brown, a spokesman for Speaker Madigan, said Illinois attorneys general dating back decades have sought similar powers, and legislators have always balked. “I don’t think anybody really saw a need given the power of the state’s attorneys, given the power of the U.S. attorneys,” he said.
State’s attorneys are elected to prosecute state crimes in their respective counties. U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president to prosecute federal crimes within specific geographic boundaries, for instance northern Illinois.
As the state government’s chief lawyer, much of the attorney general’s budget and staff is devoted to defending the state in various legal matters. That doesn’t change, no matter who is in office. But the remainder of the resources can be devoted as an attorney general sees fit, with some limitations.
“The attorney general has the ability to prioritize whatever it is they want to prioritize,” said Dan Curry, who served as spokesman for Lisa Madigan’s immediate predecessor, Jim Ryan, a Republican.
At the very least, there’s a bully pulpit that can be used to highlight public corruption and aggressively advocate for reforms, critics said.
“The results kind of speak for themselves,” said Paul Schimpf, the Republican running against Lisa Madigan in the November general election. “She has not focused on it at all, and our state has become more corrupt in the 11 years since she’s become attorney general.”
Natalie Bauer, Lisa Madigan’s spokeswoman, said via email: “We have used and worked to expand every legal tool available to our office in an effort to fight government corruption and fraud and increase transparency. These efforts include advocating to strengthen the whistleblower laws and using those laws to stop government fraud and recover hundreds of millions for the taxpayers, leading the fight to strengthen the transparency laws and establishing the first-ever Public Access Counselor in the office to enforce those laws, and pushing for stronger ethics reform laws.”
Democrat Roland Burris, who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1995, said he “didn’t worry about” public corruption when he was in office because the Cook County state’s attorney and the U.S. attorney were handling it.
“The attorney general’s office is overworked and understaffed with all the government issues. You’re the state’s defense lawyer,” Burris said. “You don’t have the staff to do the detailed investigations.”
Neil Hartigan, who served as Illinois attorney general from 1983 to 1991, said the office should have a role in battling corruption, especially if one agency declines to prosecute.
“If the state’s attorney’s not [handling public corruption] in the county, who’s doing it in the county?” Hartigan said. “That could be an area the attorney general could play a role in. Or, with respect to state government itself, if the U.S. attorney isn’t doing it, who is doing it?”
Spillane said the attorney general’s office has gotten involved in select corruption prosecutions, often when asked by a local prosecutor because of a conflict of interest, or due to the complexity of a case. The agency released a list of two-dozen or so criminal cases it’s successfully handled in recent years – many involving government officials Downstate – and a number of civil cases relating to government, in some instances contractor fraud.
Among the criminal cases, Lisa Madigan’s office successfully prosecuted the Iroquois County clerk in 2009 on theft, forgery and official misconduct charges. It’s a case Lisa Madigan was handed by Iroquois County State’s Attorney Jim Devine, who felt he was too close to the county clerk to prosecute the case.
“We’re all the same party down here,” Devine told the BGA. “For a local prosecutor to prosecute local corruption, it’s difficult sometimes.”
One case involved a member of the General Assembly – the 2005 conviction of then-state Rep. Patricia Bailey (D-Chicago) for election fraud.
Lisa Madigan’s office noted that the attorney general also was involved in the early stages of the Blagojevich corruption probe, but backed off to let the U.S. attorney’s office take the lead.
Schimpf wondered why Lisa Madigan’s office doesn’t ask more county state’s attorneys to pursue select corruption cases, as the attorney general did with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Blagojevich probe.
“Even though that grand jury statute wasn’t in place, she managed to work on the Blagojevich case,” Schimpf said. “It can be done, but it’s just a matter of prioritizing the issue, and she hasn’t done that.”
Bauer said the “majority of the criminal cases we have brought have occurred because we learned of credible allegations, began looking into them and approached the relevant county prosecutor to seek permission to handle the case.”
Ty Fahner, a Republican who served as attorney general in the early 1980s, was among the people to hold the office and push for expanded powers, with no luck.
But he now says, “I’m glad they gave the limited authority they did to the attorney general’s office.”
Among the reasons: “There’s always been a concern it could be politicized, you could investigate someone just to beat the hell out of ‘em for political reasons. I think she does a pretty good job with what she has to work with.”
In many cases, large public corruption investigations are handled by the U.S. attorney’s office – federal prosecutors.
Attorneys general in other states have broader powers when it comes to public corruption. For example, in Pennsylvania, like Illinois, county prosecutors have jurisdiction over most crimes. However, the Pennsylvania attorney general has jurisdiction over misconduct by state officials and employees, and can convene a grand jury in that context.
Lisa Madigan has pointed to Pennsylvania as a model that Illinois could follow, at least in part.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick McCraney and Robert Herguth, and FOX 32’s Dane Placko. They can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or firstname.lastname@example.org.