May 29, 2024

Eye On Illinois: SCOTUS will define ‘corruptly’ but that won’t improve government ethics

Illinoisans were supposed to be spending April closely watching the public corruption trial of a once powerful politician.

But In January, U.S. District Judge Robert Blakey agreed to reschedule the trial of former House Speaker Michael Madigan from April 1 to Oct. 8, adding six months to the quest to determine whether Madigan is guilty of the federal government’s bribery and racketeering allegations.

Blakey saw the prudence of waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its ruling in a case involving a Portage, Indiana, mayor already convicted under the same bribery law Madigan stands accused of violating. There, feds alleged the official accepted $13,000 from a company after it won contracts to sell garbage trucks to the city.

Lest you think the wheels are turning slowly for Madigan, remember the feds indicted Portage Mayor James Snyder in November 2016. They’ve already won two convictions, one for bribery and another for private business fraud, but Snyder’s legal team has successfully elevated his situation to a larger legal question that could affect public officials everywhere, especially those already under indictment.

The process moved ahead Monday with oral arguments in Washington, D.C., as justices put into stark relief the question of defining corruption. As several media outlets noted, federal criminal code 666 stipulates public officials can’t “corruptly” accept goods or services worth more than $5,000 if there is an intent to influence or reward the recipient for an official act, regardless of a prior agreement.

Madigan’s defense team has long proffered innocuous explanations for the conduct informing his criminal charges, such as accepting campaign contributions or recommending former colleagues for new jobs. We have endless examples of blatant political corruption in Illinois, so the legal strategy is sensible: he didn’t extort a children’s hospital or try to get cash in exchange for a Senate appointment.

Snyder’s case illustrates two key realities: the first is that federal law often remains vague until courts step in. Different federal judges and appeals panels will occasionally take opposite positions until the Supremes get involved. The second is that even if states have enacted their own crystal clear corruption statutes – not a given – none have the investigative and prosecutorial staffing power of the federal government.

It’s the feds who have eyes on the Statehouse and Chicago City Hall and apparently Northwestern Indiana. State lawmakers aren’t wrong to propose ethics reform ideas like making lawmakers wait 24 months after resignation before going to work at a lobbying firm, but the big dogs don’t play on the smaller fields.

Cleaning up government requires diluting the authority of those who might peddle their influence. It’s not about people but the positions they hold, but the institution will not weaken itself.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on X @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.