Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday July 16th, 2013, 3:03pm

Report: Illinois Ranks In Top 3 For State Integrity Laws, But Major Improvement Still Needed

Given the state's crooked political history, it may come as a shock to learn that Illinois earned the third-best state ranking when it comes to existing laws that help citizens push back against public corruption.

That finding is according to the Better Government Association’s (BGA) Integrity Index report released Tuesday and sponsored by Alper Services. The index ranked the 50 states based on an analysis of their laws involving open meetings, freedom of information, whistleblower protection and conflict of interest.

Despite the No. 3 rating, it’s not all sunny for the Prairie State. Illinois scored a paltry 68.5 percent out of 100. Overall, not one state had an integrity index mark higher than 70 percent, and the national average was a meager 55 percent. Rhode Island had the best score at 69.77 percent, while Delaware was the worst, 49.13 percent.

Andy Shaw, BGA President and CEO, said it is disappointing to report that all states "failed miserably" on a basic test of integrity, including an open, accessible, welcoming and accountable government.

“They flunk Integrity 101,” Shaw said.

To say Illinois' index grade, near a 'D plus' or a 'C minus', isn't as bad as other states' scores is “hardly a ringing endorsement of Illinois’ anti-corruption laws,” said Emily Miller, BGA’s policy and government affairs coordinator.

Counterintuitively, the top 10 list also includes three other states typically thought of as the most corrupt — Louisiana, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

“The states that had the brightest lights and the most heat on their sordid past, their corruption, have apparently taken the most small steps to make their government more accountable and transparent and open,” Shaw said.

And although Illinois, and other notoriously corrupt states, are doing a little better when it comes to integrity laws, this doesn’t actually mean public officials are adhering to them.

“In many cases they aren’t,” Shaw said. “But on paper, at least those states have taken a few small steps.”

The only way out of Illinois’ culture of both big and small corruption is an “engaged citizenry who ultimately pushes back,” said Patrick Collins, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago who led the prosecution in former Gov. George Ryan's trial.

“I, frankly, have been somewhat disappointed [by] how collectively we push back as a citizenry, but it’s measurements like the Alper index that give us a step in this direction,” he said.

Illinois gained its highest score relating to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws, which look to help regular citizens obtain public records in a speedy manner. The state was rated the fourth-best nationally, with a 74 percent score, for its FOIA laws.

According to the report, the state earned 100 percent when it comes to its citizens being able to request documents electronically and get them in a cost-effective way.

The state’s FOIA laws were strengthened following former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's removal from office. The new law, which took effect in 2010, includes more teeth, including fines for public bodies that illegally withhold public information. Under the upgraded measure, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office also has the power to issue subpoenas as a means to review incidents of possible public record and meetings law violations.

Regarding open meetings law, Illinois came in at No. 10 nationally with a score of 60.9 percent. Open meeting laws help to ensure citizens know about a public meeting before it happens. The Illinois General Assembly passed measures in 2012 that require public bodies that hold such meetings to have a notice and agenda available to the public and posted on its website at least 48 hours in advance. Members of public bodies also have to pass a training course on open meetings.

Each state had some sort of whistleblower law on the books intended to protect public employees against retaliation when they shed light on waste or abuse, the report noted. But there is room for more employee protections to be added, according to the report. Illinois earned the 14th-best score, 72.9 percent, regarding whistleblower laws. But the state’s appeals process for whistleblowers is weak, according to the report. Also, public agencies are not required to post information regarding rights for employees who blow the whistle.

Illinois needs the most improvement when it comes to conflict of interest laws. The state came in 27th nationally at 66.2 percent, regarding laws intended to make public officials reveal any potential outside ties that could influence political decision making.

Now that the report has been released, Shaw said he would be pleased if a few thousand additional people start to think and talk about these issues and possibly bring them up to public officials in a communal context.

“That’s the best we can hope for,” he said.

But Illinois is cleaning up its act, and residents “know things today that we might not have known 10 years ago,” Shaw added. 

He cited the recent allegations made in a memo to Metra board members from former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, which was released last week. According to the memo, Clifford alleged that House Speaker Michael Madigan asked him to boost the pay of one of his campaign workers and also hire another pal. Clifford is set to testify before the Regional Transportation Authority Wednesday regarding various allegations made in the memo.

Shaw said the details involving Madigan could have had an impact on his daughter Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s decision not to run for Illinois governor, which she announced Monday.

“That transparency, those disclosures may have affected the course of Illinois history,” Shaw said. “I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad. I’m just pointing out that transparency and accountability can prompt major changes in unexpected ways.”

The index is part of an overall conversation about integrity that Shaw said he believes is “slowly beginning to sink into the heads of public officials.” For example, he said Illinois is closer today to pension, budget and government-behavioral reform than it has ever been.

“Is this integrity index going to clean up Illinois and make it a great state governmentally,” Shaw asked. “No, but it’s going to add a very important set of data to the conversation that’s moving the ball forward.”

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