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posted: 8/2/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Metra controversy shows need for ethics law with teeth

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  • The continuing furor over the Metra commuter rail agency board shows the need for a stronger ethics law in Illinois.

      The continuing furor over the Metra commuter rail agency board shows the need for a stronger ethics law in Illinois.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

An offshoot of the ongoing controversy involving Metra and its $718,000 buyout of its former CEO is the highlight it is putting on the state's Legislative Ethics Commission and the decades-old law under which it operates.

In reporting on the issue, The Associated Press provided a comical quote from one of the state's leading Democratic spokesmen: "I think some people may be chasing problems that don't exist," said Steve Brown, powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan's spokesman. "The (ethical) problems that we see in Illinois largely focus at the executive branch."

Hmmm. The ethical and criminal issues with our former governors certainly have been the focal point in recent years in Illinois. But ethical transgressions for politicians in Illinois are all too commonplace, no matter where on the political rung they sit. Ethical lapses large and small have been proven for congressmen, legislators, judges and local officials, whether city, suburban or downstate.

That's why a federal judge sentencing a building contractor caught up in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's ethical reign of terror had this to say this week: "We live in a state that unfortunately is afflicted by political corruption. ... It's been that way as long as most of us can remember," said 84-year-old U.S. District Judge John F. Grady. "We keep hoping things are going to change."

Indeed, change is needed at all levels. Many reforms have been put in place in the last few years, but we disagree with anyone who thinks more can't be done.

Tom Homer, the state's legislative inspector general, told The Associated Press in another story this week that the ethics law passed in 1967 is a "toothless tiger" that needs to be strengthened. "Actions that may be considered unethical often fall through the cracks," the former Democratic legislator and judge said. "There's really no punishment specified."

He would like the law to allow lawmakers to get censured and suspended for ethical violations and to have investigations publicized. He also wants legislators barred from voting on bills that would financially benefit them or their families and to require extensive public disclosure of legislators' financial activity and relationships.

We strongly support any tightening of such rules and the added transparency Homer is suggesting. His pleas have fallen on deaf ears with the Democratic majority, including Madigan, who now faces an investigation by Homer and the Legislative Ethics Commission as to whether the speaker violated any rules when he asked Metra officials to give a raise to an associate and that he sought a job for another associate. Madigan says he did nothing wrong.

That may well prove to be true. But we'd feel more confident with that finding if there were a stronger ethics law dictating that outcome.

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