Guest Column by Lt. Gov Sheila Simon: Ethics Reform on the Fall Menu

Roasted turkey and ethics reform. These are two items on my menu this fall season.

As a member of the Illinois Reform Commission, I helped cook up some ethics reform in the aftermath of Governor Rod Blagojevich’s arrest in December 2008.

We passed the first-ever caps on campaign contributions in Illinois and stronger freedom of information laws. But many of our recommendations were too disruptive to politics as usual, and shelved.

With Blagojevich set for sentencing in October on 17 criminal counts of corruption, now is time to renew our efforts at ethics reform.

The place to start is with the pocketbooks of our political leaders. If you hold elected office or make decisions on where tax dollars are spent, you should be required by law to report your sources of income.

That means your government salary and money from other jobs, government contracts, rental properties and market investments.

Citizens need real information to judge for themselves if elected officials are serving the public interest, or self interest. The ways our laws are written now, the public cannot tell.

The second step is to make sure the information is easy for people to find. It should go online in a searchable database like the one that Cook County Clerk David Orr launched this summer, and be available at no cost to watchdog groups and taxpayers alike.

Critics say this would scare too many people away from public service — that you shouldn’t hold the dog catcher, the school board member and the governor to the same standard of scrutiny.

In Illinois, we have no shortage of people looking for government work or running for office. And if we scare off a few ethically skittish candidates, so be it.

Citizens should know if their dog catcher is a double dipper, if their school board member is a textbook consultant, and — as we learned in our most recent courtroom drama — if the governor has income from people wanting to do business with the state.

Honest and open government should be a given for hardworking taxpayers anywhere in our country.

Unfortunately for us in Illinois, where two out of our last three governors have been convicted of corruption charges in federal court, the public does not live with that expectation.

We have come to expect too little.

In the post-Blagojevich and post-Ryan era, we must demand more from our leaders. When we face difficult budgets and tough choices about how to use scarce tax dollars, we ought to expect fair dealing.

When I was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor in January, I pledged to make government more accountable, accessible and transparent.

Within 10 days of taking my oath of office, I released a personal financial statement showing my husband’s and my net worth.

Three months later, my senior staff provided public financial disclosure, beyond what is required by law.

These are easy steps to earn the public’s trust that we will provide honest services.

That’s why I’m working with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer to apply similar public disclosures to other elected officials.

A jury decided this summer that former Gov. Blagojevich deserved a guilty sentence.

Now, with his sentencing coming this fall, we need to decide that we deserve better. We deserve regular access to detailed financial records of our elected officials.

Let’s cook our turkeys in the kitchen, not in the courthouse.

Sheila Simon is the Illinois Lieutenant Governor and a former member of the Southern Illinois University School of Law faculty. A slightly altered version of this blog post appeared in the Chicago-Sun Times and Huffington Post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *