Springfield struggles with change after Blagojevich

June 28, 2011

By Kristen McQueary and Hunter Clauss

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)
Rod Blagojevich enters federal court for verdict in his corruption trial.

The back-to-back corruption trials of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich exposed the sensational aspects of Illinois politics: extortion at the highest levels of state government and profanity-laced temper tantrums from a defiant one-time star of the Democratic Party.

But change in Springfield after Blagojevich’s case – which followed former Gov. George Ryan’s corruption convictions – has been difficult to chisel into the wild west culture of state politics. Things have changed, lawmakers and lobbyists said, since December 2008 when federal agents arrested a sitting governor in his bedclothes shortly before dawn.  But perhaps not as much as voters think.

Blagojevich was convicted on 17 of 20 criminal counts Monday during his second trial on wide-ranging corruption charges. Jurors didn’t buy Blagojevich’s arguments that he just followed the rules of political horse trading. Instead, they convicted him on charges he tried to gain personally from his government post.

His arrest in December 2008 led to ethics reforms that restrict how much political donors can spend on General Assembly candidates each year.  

In the old days, lobbyists and campaign donors could write fat checks to incumbent politicians, take them to exclusive country clubs and lavish them with gifts and lobster dinners. Today, the expenses are limited, but a certain amount of benediction remains the norm among special interest groups, elected officials and other key players in state government, including cabinet members and agency heads. Lobbyists aim to build relationships by sending flowers and buying rounds of beers.

The difference these days is greater transparency and expenditure caps.

“I’m biased. I play a lot of golf,” said longtime lobbyist Al Ronan, whose former firm, Ronan Potts LLC, was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined more than $400,000 after one of its clients was involved in a bid-rigging scheme under former Gov. Ryan. “Some legislators are personal friends, but I can’t take them golfing as often as I would like.”

Under rules that have evolved since Blagojevich’s arrest, lobbyists must disclose their meetings with lawmakers and any “gifts” they give, including bouquets and cocktails. Ronan’s lobbyist disclosure forms show a handful of dinners with elected officials every few months, including an $8 bowl of soup he bought for state Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D-Chicago Heights).

Ronan survived several federal investigations and remains one of Springfield’s most well-connected players.

One lobbyist, who asked not to be named, pointed to Ronan as symbolic of Springfield’s unwillingness to embrace higher standards.  Despite his legal troubles, Ronan is still one of the state’s most sought-after consultants.

“The fact that he’s still around says a lot,” the lobbyist said. “Some things never change.”

Ronan said that despite appearances of business as usual,  in some cases the reform movement has gone too far. The climate post-Blagojevich is so sensitive to appearances of conflicts of interest, he said, that it slows innovation and drives businesses away.

“They broke the system for procurement,” Ronan said of the contract-awarding process. “Right now, it’s difficult for legitimate businesses to go through the machinations.”

Changes in the procurement process restrict the contact companies seeking business with the state of Illinois can have with state agency personnel. An engineering firm with new technology to build bridges, for example, can’t meet with Illinois Department of Transportation officials to talk about it, and then bid on a project to install the technology, Ronan said.

The paperwork -- and fear that any behind-the-scenes meetings might spur speculation of an inside deal – have resulted in undue, unreasonable constraints and caused some businesses to simply look elsewhere, he said.

“Reform makes all the sense in the world, and we’re all in favor of it,” Ronan said. “But sometimes the legislature is not experienced on things like procurement, and they do things that create all kinds of problems.”

Gov. Pat Quinn said Monday’s Blagojevich verdict should be an “alarm bell” for state lawmakers to take up a number of reforms, such as a constitutional amendment allowing recall elections of governors. “There’s a lot to be done,” Quinn told reporters before cribbing a phrase from Mao Zedong. “How do you let ‘a thousand flowers bloom’ when it comes to ethics and integrity in government? It’s not just to say that the people in government have a monopoly on all the good ideas. It’s to empower and strengthen the voters.”

Quinn said he would like to see public financing of campaigns as a way to “take the big money out of politics and put the people back in.” Quinn said he would also like to see provisions clamping down on the conflict of interests of elected politicians. The governor also touted a number of reforms the state approved in the wake of Blagojevich’s arrest, such as strengthening the state’s Freedom of Information Act, though the General Assembly recently rolled back some of those measures.

State Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) said the ethics bill approved following Blagojevich’s impeachment increased transparency by limiting campaign contributions to General Assembly candidates, made their public release more accessible and forced lobbyists to undergo ethics training.“Everything is different now compared to eight years ago,” Meeks, who is also pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, said from the south of France where the church choir is performing. “Absolutely everything.”

Tammy Raynor, who works in the secretary of state inspector general’s office, spent years chronicling abuses under Ryan. She was among the first rank-and-file Ryan employees to report bribes between truck drivers and driver’s license examiners – bribes that prosecutors later tracked to Ryan’s campaign fund.

Raynor, of Lockport, was demoted and threatened for her whistle-blowing.

She said the Blagojevich corruption case is similar to Ryan’s in that campaign contributions and the intense process of fund-raising intermingled regularly with government operations.

“Under Ryan, they didn’t have a merit-based promotion system at the secretary of state’s office. The only way to get attention or get promoted for employees was to play the game,” she said. “Many of them did it to earn recognition.

Kristen McQueary covers state government for WBEZ and the Chicago News Cooperative.