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A day of infamy in Illinois: impeachment debate remarks January 30, 2009

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The following is the text of my remarks during the Senate deliberations immediately preceding the 59-0 vote to convict former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of the single article of impeachment, and the subsequent vote to permanently bar him from holding public office ever again in Illinois:

Thank you, Mr. President. Like those who have preceded me, I wish to extend my deep gratitude to Chief Justice Fitzgerald, to you and Minority Leader Radogno for insuring an impeccable sense of fairness in the rules governing these proceedings…to the House prosecutor and his team and to our respective staffs who have done a tireless job under extraordinary circumstances.  

Today, the State of Illinois, the soul of the nations heartland, the home of our country’s 44th President, is bruised today and it hurts as it has never ached before.  There is no disputing, as the evidence and testimony overwhelmingly prove., that there is a consistent thread tying all of the behavior together which clearly demonstrates a pattern of abuse of power.  If , as the Governor indicated in his remarks to the Chamber this morning, (F.B.I) Special Agent Cain was constrained in his testimony…the transcripts of Ali Ata and Joseph Cari’s plea agreements, the federal government’s criminal complain, the sworn testimony in the Rezko trial and the Auditor General’s damning findings elevated the whisper to a shout from the rooftops.  Without question,  there was a systematic effort to extort money from hospital executives, racetrack owners, investment banking firms, state lease holders and the list goes on and on. 

And I have to say, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, that this is not a template that was created just six years ago.  There is no set of circumstances… there is simply no set of circumstances that any of us know of, where someone in any public office can commit to spending public taxpayer dollars without a signed contract, without legal authorization, without a fair, competitive bidding process that does not have a thumb on the scale.   People who work hard and live in our communities expect nothing less. 

In his remarks, which frankly I thought were insulting to law-abiding citizens of our communities, the Governor was clearly trying to disprove that there was a consistent pattern of behavior — one in which private individuals serving in public capacities accountable to no one  directed the spending of millions and millions of public dollars. That’s inexcusable.  It’s not a philosophical difference.  It’s against the law.  The Governor also cited the Executive Inspector General in his remarks earlier today and how it was a matter of pride that there was even an Executive Inspector General in place. But what the Governor omitted in his remarks was that at the end of her submission she pointed out, as the chief prosecutor from the House ably pointed out as well, that there was “utter contempt and disregard for the law.” 

As I indicated earlier, much of what we’ve heard and I anticipate much of what we will hear in the future in a different context, does not represent a template of abuse that developed overnight.  Nor are the participants solely affiliated with one political party.  It may have grown exponentially in these past six years, but those seeds my friends were sown long ago.

Let me reiterate as others have before me… that this is not a criminal trial.  It is a constitutional proceeding to determine the Governor’s fitness to serve all of the taxpayers of Illinois.  Governor Blagojevich as our State’s chief executive oversaw a public enterprise where legal mechanisms to assert oversight, accountability and transparency over public dollars were repeatedly dismissed or ignored.  They were characterized as cumbersome, outdated business models, inconvenient, so that real estate leases, consulting contracts, investment decisions and a host of other public assets were used to extract money and to deny taxpayers honest services. 

In one instance — the so-called “efficiency initiative” — a private entity was created out of whole cloth and payments of public dollars were made.  Payments of dollars that were stripped from state agencies that the legislative branch mandated constitutionally to ensure that they could fulfill their respective missions and those dollars were used in a very elaborate shell game. 

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, our neighbors and our nation are today confronted with great economic uncertainty that requires true ethical and undistracted attention from our State’s chief executive. Their livelihoods, their homes and their very existence during this economic crisis depend on focused and principled leadership to provide for a better future.  Governor Blagojevich, and through the actions and those of his and those his associates, have demonstrated unfortunately, tragically , that he is no longer fit to hold the office of the State’s chief executive. 


Step away from the car, Roland January 2, 2009

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The twisted Machiavellian machinations that define disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich have now spawned a new offspring in the appointment of former state comptroller and attorney general Roland Burris to the vacant U.S. Senate seat held by president-elect Barack Obama.

As the days count down to the January 7 swearing-in of the U.S. Senate, CNN’s Political Ticker reports that a plan has been devised by Senate aides to politely yet firmly decline Burris entry to the Senate chambers if he persists in trying to show up for work that day. While Burris has previously said that he will not stage a confrontational scene at the U.S. Capitol, unfortunately that assertion provides little comfort  at the moment. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that he condemned the Governor’s unethical behavior as “appalling”  and “reprehensible”  before becoming mesmerized by the allure of becoming the junior U.S. Senator of Illinois.

The indefatigable Lynn Sweet of the Sun Times provides additional perspective here on how Roland Burris is underestimating the blowback coming his way.

Please, step away from the car, Roland — you won’t be able to sandblast the indelible stain of the Governor’s actions off your good name if you follow through on this ill-conceived adventure. There is no shame in saying that you have taken the public interest into account and have reconsidered your earlier decision to accept this profoundly flawed offer. And as E.J. Dionne points out in his syndicated column, the Obama-led national Democrats in D.C.  are most likely to decide that they’re ultimately better off waiting out this whole sordid mess by slowly studying it to death rather than trying to strike an accommodation that seats Senator Burris on an interim or caretaker basis, as “treating this appointment as a circus act makes more sense than taking it seriously.” 

One thing that we absolutely must  take seriously is to promptly pass a special election bill, not just for filling this vacancy but for any future U.S. Senate opening.

Governor Quinn’s Job One: Ethics Summit December 15, 2008

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Off in a bit to begin traveling from Evanston to the State Capitol as we try and sort through the wreckage caused the state’s narcissistic chief executive.

In the meantime, while a combination of varied efforts to remove Rod Blagojevich from the Governor’s office intensifies by the hour, it’s not too early to begin laying out the immediate challenges that will be before Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn once he eventually assumes office as the state’s chief executive.

Setting aside resolution of the now infamous vacant U.S. Senate seat formerly held by President-elect Barack Obama, the first thing the new Governor should do is immediately  invite Cindy Canary’s Crew, a.k.a. the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, the Better Government Association, the Civic Federation, the League of Women Voters of Illinois and every other good government group to join with lawmakers from both parties at a “Governor’s Summit on Ethics Reform” to lay out a punch list of reform measures that ought to be part of a larger strategy of reclaiming Illinois government. Convene the “Governor’s Summit on Ethics Reform” at the Governor’s Mansion, too, so that taxpayers will see further symbolism in restoring government back to the people.

Action items ought to include:

  • Campaign finance reform;
  • Greater  accountability and transparency for public pension and investment transactions;
  • Further strengthening of the state’s procurement code governing the purchase of goods and services;
  • Specific procedures for removal of a corrupt constitutional officeholders; and 
  • How to use the Web and technology as a tool for enabling more sunshine in state government.

What else should be added to this menu for reform?

Building better mousetraps December 1, 2008

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Today’s Chicago Tribune has a story about a legislative proposal by Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias to consolidate all of the state’s pension boards into a single uber-investment board in the hope of realizing cost-efficiencies and greater transparency. While there are many laudable ethics reforms featured in his plan, most notably, the requirement of all individuals sitting on retirement system boards to file full economic interest statements and making the retirement systems subject to the state more stringent procurement code, I nonetheless have serious reservations about the consolidation issue that is the highlight of the Treasurer’s well-intended proposal.

In short, I’m skeptical that bigger always means better when it comes to governing public finance. 

“There’s an inherent danger whenever one tries to funnel so much activity into a single source because it weakens the checks and balances over these public funds,” said Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston), who has long worked on pension reform issues.

The downsides to consolidation include fewer opportunities for newer investment firms and those headed by women and minorities to break into public fund management in Illinois. That also means less likelihood that those firms which manage public funds in Illinois would be relinquishing their share of the pie any time soon.

Folding all the state retirement systems into one board doesn’t necessarily mean more accountability. These same reservations bubbled to the surface when early in the governor’s first term, the Blagojevich administration sought to wrap all of the state’s quasi-public bonding authorities into one massive debt-issuing agency. The legislature wisely rejected that move, and this consolidation effort is reminiscent of that earlier play.

What’s really needed here is greater focus on building better mousetraps given the billions of dollars of cheese involved in state pension and investment decisions. Requiring anyone who seeks to be involved in an investment decision with a public pension fund to be a licensed broker-dealer certified by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), is a far better path to take in promoting greater accountability and transparency in state public pensions. 

Here’s the skinny on the FIRNA from it’s own Web site:

Created in July 2007 through the consolidation of NASD and the member regulation, enforcement and arbitration functions of the New York Stock Exchange, FINRA is dedicated to investor protection and market integrity through effective and efficient regulation and complementary compliance and technology-based services. FINRA touches virtually every aspect of the securities business—from registering and educating industry participants to examining securities firms; writing rules; enforcing those rules and the federal securities laws; informing and educating the investing public; providing trade reporting and other industry utilities; and administering the largest dispute resolution forum for investors and registered firms. It also performs market regulation under contract for The NASDAQ Stock Market, the American Stock Exchange, the International Securities Exchange and the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Mandating that everyone associated with state public pension fund transactions is a licensed securities professional more effectively achieves the goal of taking political influence out of the equation. No longer would insiders be able to pass themselves off as marketing consultants for investment banking firms while pocketing huge fees for minimal work on large deals, and the protective umbrella  of securities industry’s higher standards would more likely prevent Illinois taxpayers from getting soaked. 

Most of the ethics provisions in the treasurer’s reform package have already passed the House or the Senate. Now that we’ve finally put the pay-to-play ban into effect, pension and investment reform should be the next big ethics issue that is tackled at the State Capitol. There will be plenty of challenges ahead on that front, but focusing primarily on fund consolidation shouldn’t be one of them.