Jim Dey: Madigan manuever may have tainted library official's effort to win facility's independence

Jim Dey: Madigan manuever may have tainted library official's effort to win facility's independence

If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

Local lawyer, law professor and Abraham Lincoln enthusiast Steve Beckett isn't ready for a flea bath quite yet, but he is doing a little scratching behind his ears.

Beckett's bad company comes in the form of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the all-powerful Democrat to whom Beckett, chairman of the advisory board to the Springfield-based Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, turned for help addressing the library's oversight problems. Madigan was impressed with Beckett's proposed legislation to separate the presidential library from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) and make it, like all other presidential libraries, a separate entity.

But sparks flew in the General Assembly this past week when Madigan used clout and secrecy to pass the legislation out of the House at lightning speed. Things slowed down in the Senate, where President John Cullerton, a Democrat who is co-sponsoring the legislation, said Friday he will not call the legislation until after the fall election because more time is needed to study it.

Although the House passed the legislation by an 84-29 margin, there is feverish speculation about what Madigan is doing and why. Many think the worst.

"Protect the Lincoln library from sneaky Madigan maneuver," editorialized the Chicago Sun-Times.

"Put the brakes on Madigan's Lincoln presidential museum bill," thundered the Springfield Journal-Register.

Even the most plugged-in politicos were taken by surprise when Madigan, out of the blue, presented the library legislation to a House committee and asked for its passage.

"I read about it in the paper, like everyone else," said former Gov. Jim Edgar, a current member and former chairman of the library foundation's board. "I think everyone is surprised."

Unfortunately, speculation about legislative tactics and motivation has overshadowed the issue of whether the Lincoln library would be better served by being split off from the IHPA, which oversees 56 historic sites and places in addition to the hugely popular library. Further, in an effort to keep the library under their umbrella, IHPA bureaucrats have pushed back, claiming, somewhat implausibly, that it will cost taxpayers $2.4 million to make the library a separate entity.

Even more bizarre, questions have been raised about Madigan's association with Lincoln library executive director Eileen Mackevich, and her personal relationship with Stanley Balzekas Jr., a prominent Chicago resident who owns the building where Madigan maintains his legislative office.

Speaker Madigan dismissed what he called "simple political gossip" and characterized the issue as easy to understand.

"They ought to be separated. And the library and museum ought to be able to chart its own destiny, work to improve the quality and the beauty of the museum. That's my thinking," he said.

Nonetheless, conspiracy theories abound, all of which distress Beckett.

"The idea comes off with a taint that besmirches what I'm trying to do," he said.

Although Beckett is chairman of the library's 11-member advisory board, he said the idea to separate the library from IHPA is his alone, that he raised it with library director Mackevich and that she used her access to Madigan to arrange for Beckett to discuss his proposal with Madigan legislative aides.

Beckett said he did not meet Madigan personally until last week at a legislative committee meeting.

Essentially, Beckett described the Lincoln library as having a black-hole relationship with the IHPA board — the advisory board presents ideas and IHPA either ignores or rejects them. He said that has led to numerous problems, which include 17 unfilled positions at the library and a delay in the planned digitization of library documents.

"We want to have the museum and library to be accredited nationally. That means you have certain criteria" to meet, he said.

One current problem lost in the bureaucratic shuffle is taking receipt of the personal papers of Illinois' former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III.

"We've been working on it for two years and still don't have them," Beckett said, acknowledging that "obviously, I'm a little frustrated."

Given the library's history, it's not surprising that people are protective of its reputation.

It's a smash hit with the public, built largely on the strength of the library's first executive director, well-known historian Richard Norton Smith.

But before the library was built, it was the subject of at two least ferocious battles involving patronage and pay-to-play politics.

In one instance, then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald took to the Senate floor to conduct a filibuster over federal funding for the library. He expressed widely publicized concerns that Springfield political insider William Cellini would use his substantial influence to win construction contracts for the library. Cellini later went to prison after being implicated in the political scandal that sent former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to jail.

In another, the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal wrote a series of articles warning that former Gov. George Ryan, who was in office while the library was under construction, planned to use the library as a patronage dumping ground, including naming his chief of staff as the library's executive director. Neal's columns helped stop that from happening, and the library officials have honored his memory by establishing a "Steve Neal Reading Room" at the library. Like Blagojevich, Ryan also ended up in prison on corruption charges.

It's that history that helped spark current suspicions about the Madigan/Beckett legislative express, something a more deliberative effort might have avoided.

"The normal legislative process would probably be the better way to go," Edgar said. "I just hate to see the presidential library tainted in any way."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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