Reformers pitch ideas at meeting of the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform – Chicago Sun-Times

When most people retire, they’re looking forward to traveling the world, tending their gardens, doing volunteer work or just spending time with the grandchildren.

And then there’s Illinois politicians.

“Too often, a lawmaker’s retirement and resignation is immediately followed by that lawmaker’s registration as a lobbyist,” said Ryan Tolley, policy director for CHANGE Illinois.

Tolley was just one of the government reform advocates who came out Wednesday to address a newly formed state panel charged with trying to help clean up Illinois politics.

While they didn’t always agree on specific solutions, most of those who spoke agreed that the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform has its work cut out for it.

“I don’t think the problem is lobbyists, I think the problem is a transactional relationship between special interests and people who write our laws and set our government’s policy,” Marie Dillon, director of policy for the Better Government Association.

In other words, “What’s in it for me?”

But with ‘lobbying’ in the commission’s title and discussion of the Lobbyist Registration Act listed on its agenda, that was a major focus of the conversation at the meeting at the Michael A. Bilandic Building.

Government reformers told the commission, largely made up of members of the General Assembly and the executive branch, that Illinois is one of the few states that does not have a law that prevents elected officials from going straight into lobbying after they leave office.

Tolley and others would like to see a “cooling-off” period” that regulates the time in which a former lawmaker can become a lobbyist.

The government reform advocates also called for the state to end the practice of allowing active legislators to lobby.

In December, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance banning aldermen from lobbying state and local government and preventing their counterparts at those other levels from doing the same at City Hall.

State Sen. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), who serves as co-chair of the commission, registered as a lobbyist with the city of Chicago in 2019, something he said he was required to do by law as part of his work as an attorney.

“I have never done anything that would put my own self-interests above my constituents,” Sims said.

Sims said he would wait to see the details for any of the proposed reforms that the panelists suggested at Wednesday’s meeting before he would decide whether he could support them.

The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation to form the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform during the fall veto session in the wake of federal investigations of elected officials and lobbyists in the state.

The commission is required to come up with recommendations for the Legislature by March 31, something that has frustrated some.

State Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, said the scandals should have been enough to prompt lawmakers to pass ethics reform during the veto session not just form a commission.

“There’s a lot of people who make money off of the way things are now, and they don’t want to change that,” Wehrli said. “I think it’s unethical. Illinois has a long history of unethical and corrupt behavior and when you’re benefiting from that you don’t want to make those changes.”

A flurry of federal activity prompted the latest push for reforms.

Former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, was charged with bribery in October for allegedly attempting to bribe a fellow state lawmaker in order to get support for legislation that benefited one of Arroyo’s lobbying clients.

State Rep. Luis Arroyo leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in October. File Photo.
Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval resigned in November after federal officials raided his offices in Springfield and Cicero in connection with a federal investigation. Sandoval has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

And Mike McClain, a former state legislator turned lobbyist and close confidant of state House Speaker Mike Madigan, is under federal scrutiny as part of an investigation into the lobbying practices of utility Commonwealth Edison, a source has told the Sun-Times. McClain has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The commission will meet again on Jan. 30 in. Springfield.