Editorial: Springfield's culture is even more imporant than Madigan indictments

Last week, former House Speaker Michael Madigan joined a long line of Illinois politicians who have been accused or convicted of serious breaches of the public trust.

Madigan's case is noteworthy not simply because of the high position he held and the power he wielded for decades, but also because so many experts deemed him too smart and too connected ever to be hauled into a courtroom as a defendant.

Madigan vehemently denies the charges against him, so conventional wisdom still may have to wait on hold to see whether he will ever be convicted. But these issues notwithstanding, another factor may be even more important to contemplate than who Madigan was. That is, the length of that line he's now part of.

As our Jake Griffin wrote in a front-page story on Sunday, author and professor Dick Simpson has counted more than 2,100 Illinois public officials who have gone to federal prison since 1976.

What is it about government in Illinois, one naturally wonders, that lures so many people in public positions to risk their livelihoods, their reputations and their freedom on corrupt political schemes?

Simpson, himself a former Chicago alderman, and government watchers like him respond that corruption is simply part of the Springfield culture.

"If you read the indictment, it's not just an indictment of Madigan," John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale told Griffin. "It's almost an indictment of the whole political system in Illinois."

Corruption has long been a stereo­type of Illinois government. To a degree, that's unfair, because so many officials of both parties serve with great integrity and the best intentions. But the facts of history cannot be ignored, so it is a particular disappointment that this honorable majority has failed so often to step up and face them.

In the wake of the Madigan announcement, many elected officials pointed to last year's election reforms as evidence government is facing up to its shortcomings. Yet, the weaknesses of that legislation virtually belie that argument.

Even one of its key sponsors, Democratic state Rep. Anne Gillespie of Arlington Heights acknowledged at the time that the bill was just "a first step." Skeptics might counter that it was something even less than that - as we did at the time when we suggest it appeared to be "just enough (so politicians could) tout themselves on reelection fliers for passing ethics reforms but not nearly enough to actually reform anything."

The legislation, we remind you and them, did not give the state's ethics watchdog the authority to compel witnesses with subpoenas or even to start an investigation without a formal complaint. It lets lawmakers turn around and become lobbyists just six months after they leave their elected positions. It doesn't require lawmakers to declare potential conflicts of interest their family members may have with issues they will vote on.

The sad truth is that Madigan's indictment does little to keep that line he's now a part of from growing still longer. Lawmakers themselves must bear that responsibility. Illinoisans would be so much more reassured if they would stop pointing to ineffectual acts of the past and start making unequivocal bold statements that will change the future.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.