Ethics probe, Illinois-style

Ethics probe, Illinois-style

The Illinois Ethics Commission, an oxymoron of epic proportions, is gearing up for action.

A state ethics panel has decided to open an investigation into possible improper activity by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

But there's no reason to get excited about the news, because Legislative Inspector General Tom Homer is only doing what he was asked to do by none other than Madigan. In this state, nobody says no to the all-powerful speaker. If they do, they end up like Alex Clifford, the former head of Metra, the Chicago commuter rail agency, who lost his job after saying no to powerful pols including Madigan.

The commission investigation is an outgrowth of the political misconduct at Metra, where former Executive Director Clifford stepped on the toes of powerful politicos by refusing to hand out jobs and pay raises based on clout. Metra board members tried to silence Clifford on his way out the door by giving him a $718,000 severance package with a non-disclosure clause. But controversy over the disclosure clause led to controversy over what specifically it was that Clifford was prohibited from disclosing — more politics as usual in Illinois.

Now the commission can be expected to go through the motions of an investigation before ultimately concluding that Madigan and two other legislators broke no laws by trying to pressure Clifford into using the Metra to reward campaign workers and donors.

That may well be the correct conclusion. What law is there that prevents Madigan from writing a letter seeking a pay raise for a Metra employee, longtime government payroller Patrick Ward?

Just because Metra salary issues are none of Madigan's business doesn't make his request a crime. Just because a request from Madigan is perceived as a direct order by almost everyone doesn't make it a crime. Just because Ward asked Madigan to pressure his boss for a pay raise doesn't make it a crime.

In Illinois politics, it's not what's illegal that is outrageous; it's what is legal but improper. Politicians think they have a right to use government to feather their own nests and use tax dollars to stoke their campaign operations.

Consider Ward, a 57-year-old who has been working for and donating to the Madigan campaign machine for years.

The Better Government Association of Chicago reports that Ward was collecting two government pensions — one each from the City of Chicago and Cook County — that paid him nearly $61,000 while he was earning $57,000 a year at Metra. He wanted a raise and asked Madigan to help him get it.

Clifford said no, angering his board members, who feared Madigan would retaliate by cutting legislative funding for the agency.

Clifford is now out of a job, while Ward left Metra to take a job in the Quinn administration (engineered for him by Madigan). Now Ward is earning nearly $70,000 a year plus his two generous pensions. Life can be good for those who understand how government really works.

Unfortunately, it's not quite so sweet for those forced to pick up the tab, hapless taxpayers who finance but never get to ride on the government gravy train.

Ward is just one of hundreds of government payrollers who have their positions based on who they know rather than what they know.

Most downstaters, if they're even aware of the Metra scandal, probably regard it as a Chicago scandal, but it's more than that. It's an Illinois scandal that wouldn't even be happening if Clifford, a transplant from California supposedly brought in to clean up scandal-tarred Metra, understood that he was supposed to roll over for any politician making a request.

It's generated a few headlines. It prompted Madigan to ask for an ethics investigation that will undoubtedly conclude that he's a fine fellow who would never think of doing anything improper.

After that, it's back to business as usual, a sorry state of affairs that will continue until voters finally stand up and demand better.

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