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updated: 7/6/2011 1:11 PM

State ethics board levied $28,350 in fines

Suburban Watchdog

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  • Ricardo Meza of Arlington Heights

      Ricardo Meza of Arlington Heights

 
 

Twenty-nine state workers have felt the wrath of the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission since the little-known board's inception seven years ago.

For violating the ethics code, those workers were fined a combined $28,350 by the commission.

Meanwhile, the efforts of the nine-member board cost taxpayers $338,139 a year in salaries for the appointees -- or more than $2 million so far. The members also receive reimbursements for expenses they incur.

The 29 fines, ranging between $100 for forwarding politically tinged emails and $5,000 for soliciting political donations on the job, are a fraction of the more than 1,000 complaints a year brought to the attention of the executive inspector general. The job is currently held by Ricardo Meza, of Arlington Heights, who was appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn last September and is in charge of deciding which of the complaints to send to the ethics commission.

At least one state representative is surprised at the number of ethics violations doled out and the cost of investigating them.

"I know the board isn't set up to be self-sustaining, but the cost of board members does seem to be a significant number to taxpayers to mete out justice," said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a Republican from Elmhurst.

Nicholas Haddad, the campaign manager for Reboletti's 2008 Democratic opponent, was fined $250 after the ethics commission determined he used a state computer to do campaign work. Haddad, an Illinois Department of Transportation project manager from Naperville, was suspended from his job for five days.

He is one of eight people still working for the state of Illinois after being found guilty of ethical lapses.

Attempts to reach Haddad for comment were unsuccessful.

Reboletti wonders if the punishments are enough. "The fine is supposed to deter you and a $250 fine is tantamount to a speeding ticket," Reboletti said.

The commission has used its maximum fine of $5,000 just once for a former department of human services director who sent emails from a state computer soliciting campaign donations for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The average fine imposed is about $950, according to analysis of the commission's data. Officials at the commission said about "a half dozen" cases brought against state workers have ever resulted in exoneration of the employee. Those reports are not made public.

"We do have the ability to mete out fines, but the more important aspect of it is that the punishment becomes public the way it should be," said Jim Brennan, a commissioner from Wheaton appointed by the governor. "The transparency is the real linchpin of success. The public can see that somebody did something wrong, it was reported and objectively looked into."

The cost of adjudicating a case doesn't take into account the often-lengthy investigations by Meza's office or prosecution by the Illinois attorney general's office.

"We don't track the cost of any given investigation," said Cole Kain, Meza's chief of staff.

Legislators have taken shots at Meza's office for the lag time between the report of an offense and when it gets to the commission for a hearing. Kain said the office received more than 1,100 complaints for the year ending June 30, 2010. Those complaints resulted in 256 new investigations. Some cases are closed without any finding of wrongdoing, some result in penalties being assessed by superiors at the agencies, some make their way to the ethics board and a few become criminal complaints, Kain said.

Brennan said the board has become busier in recent years, especially after elections. It has also been given the task of hiring state procurement officers, he said.

More than 160,000 state employees who fall under the executive branch are subject to the commission's authority. That includes employees at statewide agencies, state universities and Chicago-area transit agencies. The result of the most recent case decided by the commission had Gov. Pat Quinn's former deputy chief of staff Carolyn Brown Hodge being fined $1,000 earlier this month for using state equipment to work on Quinn's campaign. Meza's office had sought a $4,000 fine.

Hodge resigned her post during the course of the investigation, state officials said. Others who have been sanctioned still hold state jobs or appointments.

John Philip Novak, a former Democratic South suburban state representative, was the first person ever fined by the commission. The commission levied a $2,500 fine, ruling he violated the state's "revolving door prohibition" when he left his post as Pollution Control Board chairman and became a lobbyist whose only client was ComEd, according to the commission's report.

Even after the commission's ruling, he kept his governor's appointment to the Clean Energy Community Foundation -- funded through a $225 million endowment by ComEd -- that pays him $25,000 a year through the endowment.

"I failed to get a waiver from the ethics commission and that was my mistake, so I paid the fine," Novak said. "It was a business violation, not a criminal violation."

He was first appointed to the foundation board by House Speaker Michael Madigan in 1999, then Blagojevich reappointed him five years later. His term expired in 2009, but Quinn has made no overtures since the ethics violation to remove him. Novak said he's had talks with Quinn's people about another term on the foundation board.

Quinn's office had little to say about the matter.

"John P. Novak was appointed to the Clean Energy Community Foundation prior to Governor Quinn taking office," wrote Press Secretary Annie Thompson. "The governor is currently reviewing candidates to serve on the foundation."

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Got a tip for the suburban tax watchdog? Contact Jake Griffin at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602. And follow him online at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyherald and twitter.com/#!/DHJakeGriffin.

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