We all know the expression “the gift that keeps on giving.” When it comes to government ethics in Illinois, we face something different altogether: a curse that keeps on hurting.

A cesspool of unethical and likely illegal behavior came to light in 2019, thanks to a sprawling federal probe of public corruption. And now a report from public radio station WBEZ shows 2020 may bring more of the same.

A public records request by WBEZ unearthed an email in which a leading member of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s inner circle asked a top staffer of then-Gov. Pat Quinn to give a break to a state worker facing a disciplinary proceeding.

One reason: The worker had “kept his mouth shut” about an unspecified rape in Champaign. He also had remained “loyal” to Quinn and kept quiet about “ghost workers,” the email states. WBEZ’s reporting offers no detail about the alleged sex crime or ghost payrolling.

Even the routing list on the email says something unsettling about the way state government works: A Madigan confidant and lobbyist, Michael McClain, sent it to Quinn’s legislative liaison, himself a former member of Madigan’s legislative leadership team. The worker in question left the state payroll in 2018, got a job consulting on now-Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign and is back working for the state—though as a consultant this time, WBEZ reports.

So operates the Springfield system. It rewards loyalty over public service. It values the sort of “good soldier,” the email implies, who would keep quiet to conceal a crime.

Madigan has no fingerprints on any of it, of course. He is to the Springfield Statehouse what the Phantom was to the Paris Opera House—fully in charge yet impossible to pin down.

To begin fixing this, the Legislature late last year established a commission to propose reforms. The 16-member group includes appointees from the Legislature, governor’s office and attorney general’s office and must produce final recommendations by March 31.

Of course, Illinois has seen ethics overhauls before, and none made much progress in cleaning up the culture of Springfield. And this time, if appearances count, there is enough to give us pause.

As in the past, the commission’s mandate is overly narrow. It’s limited to review of five laws that affect legislative ethics. It seems predisposed to focus on lobbying, which has surfaced as a point of interest in the federal investigations.

But there is more to corruption in Illinois government than lobbying. And some of the biggest root causes—such as gerrymandered maps and campaign contributions—are off the table.

The March deadline is a second concern. The commission has held just one public organizational meeting. Common sense tells us it will take something longer than 14 weeks to devise demolition of a corrupt system that has evolved and adapted at least over Madigan’s quarter century in power.

To get an idea of just how embedded conflicts are in Springfield, consider that two of the commission members have conflicts that would be prohibited or widely denounced in many other states. One co-chair, Democratic state Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago, has held a side job lobbying Chicago city officials. Another commission member, Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, also holds a second elective office as a village trustee.

Thanks to a narrow reform passed by the Chicago City Council late last year, it now is illegal for a lawmaker to lobby Chicago city government. But Burke can continue in her dual roles, even though this places her in the path of potential conflicts between her state and local duties.

In a best case, perhaps Burke and Sims will bring particular insight into conflicts—and how to eradicate them—by virtue of their experience. And maybe the end of March will be just the start of a Springfield cleanup effort that will start with this commission and expand in breadth and power. 

Or perhaps, as has happened too often in the past, the commission will be hampered by a lack of follow-through. After all, any recommendations it makes must be approved by the Madigan-dominated state Legislature that has all but ignored, or only halfheartedly implemented, good recommendations from reform commissions in the past.

It’s too early to tell how this will play out. But revelations of the last year, and as recently as this week, hint at just how hard the job will be.

David Greising is the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, joining the BGA in 2018. For nearly a century, the BGA has fought for honest and effective government through investigative journalism and policy advocacy.

Greising’s career started at the City News Bureau of Chicago, with stops at the Chicago Sun-Times, Business Week magazine, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. He was a co-founder of the Chicago News Cooperative and worked briefly as a consultant to World Business Chicago. Today, Greising writes on government issues in regular columns for the Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business.

Under Greising’s leadership, the BGA has played a key role in uncovering public corruption amidst the wide-ranging federal probe, starting with an in-depth report about Ald. Ed Burke’s conflicts of interest before the federal charges against Burke. The BGA also has exposed waste and fraud at O’Hare and the proliferation of corruption and poverty into Dolton, Lyons and other Chicago suburbs. The BGA’s policy team has led calls for ethics reform in Chicago’s City Council and in state government.