As corruption trials continue, Illinois lobbyist reform effort pushed in General Assembly

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Illinois laws regulating lobbyists and their influence on state government have long been criticized as being too weak, especially for a state with a history of influence peddling and corruption.

As the Illinois General Assembly begins its spring session, among the mountain of legislation being proposed is a bill that aims to tackle two key issues around lobbying — requiring statehouse lobbyists to report the compensation they receive from their clients and giving the secretary of state’s office the power to boot bad actors.

Pushed by Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, the legislation could face an uphill climb in Springfield, where former lawmakers often become lobbyists and work hard to have their interests protected. But following a string of corruption trials — including persistent headlines of a bribery scandal involving Commonwealth Edison and lobbyists trying to influence now-indicted ex-Speaker Michael Madigan — Giannoulias said, “The timing is ripe for this legislation to be acted on and passed.”

The proposal could strengthen a feeble state lobbying law that generally focuses on requiring the secretary of state to do little more than act as a repository for the registration of lobbyists, their client names and their basic expenses like the cost of wining and dining lawmakers.

Requiring state lobbyists to report how much they are compensated by clients would follow similar lobbying requirements at Chicago City Hall, a place not known for the highest ethical standards.

“To me, it’s a matter of uniformity,” said Giannoulias, a first-term Democrat. “In the city … you have to disclose it. Why not the state?”

Despite Giannoulias’ plans, the proposal’s legislative sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Maurice West of Rockford, last week would commit only to giving the issue a hearing before the House Ethics & Elections committee he chairs.

“I don’t have a stake in the game when it comes to this topic, on whether or not we should do it,” West said.

The idea could get incorporated into a larger legislative package with other efforts to strengthen government ethics laws, West said, but it will move forward only if the legislature’s Democratic leaders — Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside and Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park — and Gov. J.B. Pritzker are on board.

“It’s not smart to allow it to move in one chamber and not the other,” West said. “If it’s going to move, it’s because we know it’s going to pass.”

The speaker has met with West about all bills assigned to the Ethics & Elections Committee, but Welch “has not discussed specifics of this legislation,” Welch spokeswoman Jaclyn Driscoll told the Tribune in an email.

“He looks forward to learning more about this proposal,” Driscoll said.

Harmon’s office said the secretary of state has briefed him on the proposal.

“Policing the lobbying industry is a key responsibility for that statewide office,” Harmon spokesman John Patterson said in a statement about the secretary of state’s office. “We look forward to the House debate and further reviewing the legislation and idea.”

The governor’s office did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

While lawmakers have just started to consider the bill’s fate, Giannoulias may have helped his chances of winning some support by steering clear of what lawmakers have historically viewed as third-rail political issues.

The proposal, for instance, does not include closing loopholes in the state’s revolving-door ban involving lawmakers and other state employees going to work as lobbyists or banning state lawmakers from getting controversial side gigs making money lobbying local governments. Lawmakers are only prohibited from lobbying on behalf of clients who also lobby the state.

Giannoulias said he would be “happy to have” future conversations about further strengthening the lobbying regulations but wanted to focus now on taking an “important first step” toward restoring the trust of a public “sick and tired of corruption and scandal.”

Nobody’s going to declare Giannoulias’ proposal a silver bullet to Illinois’ corruption problem. But the secretary of state, who had a tense relationship with Madigan when he headed the state Democratic Party and Giannoulias made a failed and controversial run for U.S. Senate in 2010, said the legislation could help Illinois counter its reputation as a national “laughingstock” over high-profile government ethical failures.

Just last week, as Illinois celebrated the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, the federal courthouse produced the two latest examples of Springfield’s sleazy behavior.

Federal jurors found former Democratic lawmaker Annazette Collins of Chicago guilty of cheating on taxes while lobbying and consulting with ComEd. And in a separate courtroom a federal judge sentenced Tim Mapes, Madigan’s ousted chief of staff, to 2½ years in prison for lying to a grand jury to protect the ex-speaker and their friend, Michael McClain, a former ComEd lobbyist, in the probe that led to multiple indictments.

Among the biggest changes proposed in the legislation is the compensation reporting requirement. Illinois law currently allows special interests in Springfield to exclude the overall amounts of cash they spend into sometimes overwhelming and expensive efforts to change laws, bottle up legislation or push potentially lucrative agendas.

“The source and the amount of compensation that these individuals are paid by companies, corporations and other individuals is helpful to understand the amount of influence exerted upon the state and state officials and hopefully exposing the real source of that influence,” Giannoulias said.

ComEd, for example, employed an army of lobbyists as it successfully pushed through a series of lucrative proposals starting in 2011 that produced windfalls for the state-regulated utility at the height of Madigan’s nationwide record 36-year reign as speaker.

But ComEd was required to report to the secretary of state’s office only the small fractions of the millions of dollars the utility spent on its in-house and contract lobbyists.

Collins, a former member of the House and Senate, was a minor player hired by ComEd. But trial testimony indicated she received more than $200,000 from 2014 to 2018 for lobbying and consulting services.

McClain, one of Madigan’s closest confidants, collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for his contract work as a lobbyist and later as a consultant for ComEd.

Another main piece of the legislation calls for the secretary of state to revoke a lobbyist registration for up to a year if a person violates lobbyist and ethics laws or is denied a pension, such as for committing a crime in connection to a person’s state position. After a year, a person could seek eligibility to re-register as a lobbyist, according to a secretary of state aide.

The measure also would allow the secretary of state to investigate anyone who hasn’t registered as a lobbyist but might be lobbying anyway. The office could revoke, suspend or bar for up to one year a person from lobbying for failing to file reports or failing to pay a fine.

Current law basically authorizes “zero enforcement,” but the office should be able to perform audits and terminate, suspend or revoke lobbyist registration, Giannoulias said.

Another proposed change would require lobbyists to keep records for three years, up from two, or face possible revocation of their license.

Most of the current penalties for violations are relatively nominal, such as $50 for late filing fees and $100 for failing to register, but they could be levied 26 times for each of the reports due in a year.

The Giannoulias proposal also would require lobbyists in Cook County and other local governments outside Chicago to report compensation, the secretary’s office said. Cook County’s previous requirement to report compensation had been removed under a state law that took effect two years ago.

The enhanced lobbyist disclosures are one component of a broader legislative agenda backed by the Chicago-based Better Government Association, said Bryan Zarou, the group’s director of policy.

“We are glad to see the secretary of state file and support this initiative,” Zarou wrote in a text message. “Lobbyist reform is long overdue and it’s about time the state gets in line with federal and city standards. It’s a step in the right direction and we fully support and will advocate on behalf of this bill.”

Since the federal corruption probe that ultimately ensnared Madigan became public in 2019, the legislature has made minor headway toward tightening lobbyist laws, all of which good-government advocates have found wanting.

A 2019 effort required additional disclosures from state lobbyists, including other levels of government they lobby and whether they hold any elected or appointed public office. It also created an ethics commission to propose additional changes but that group disbanded in the early days of the pandemic without producing a final set of recommendations.

A separate measure approved in 2021 implemented a prohibition on lawmakers leaving the General Assembly and immediately becoming lobbyists in the middle of their terms. But advocates criticized the new six-month cooling-off period as too short and riddled with loopholes.

For example, the revolving-door prohibition ends when a new legislature is seated every two years, meaning lawmakers who leave office with less than six months remaining in their terms can start lobbying as soon as a new group of legislators is sworn in.