Testimony before the House Ethics & Elections Committee
Testimony of Georgia Logothetis
Assistant Director, Common Cause Illinois
Before the House Ethics & Elections Committee
April 12, 2021
Good afternoon. Madame Chair and honorable members of this committee, thank you for the opportunity to share my views on ethics reform this afternoon. My name is Georgia Logothetis, and I am the Assistant Director of Common Cause Illinois. Common Cause is a nonpartisan grassroots organization with more than one million members across this country, including 33,000 reformers right here in Illinois. At all levels of government, we fight for the type of ethical, effective, and representative government that we all deserve.
We are all here today to try and restore that sacred trust between an elected official and the people he or she is supposed to serve. For far too long, we’ve all have watched as one lawmaker after another has been investigated, indicted, or arrested on charges of embezzlement, bribery, and fraud. For me, the most tragic aspect of our recent state affairs is so many people read the news on those ethical lapses and simply shrug — a dejected acknowledgement that this is just how things work in Illinois.
It doesn’t have to be that way, which is why we’re all here today.
I’d like to speak directly to one aspect of ethics reform – conflict of interest recusal, since I think this goes to the heart of what so many, rightly or wrongly, think is so wrong with the way our government operates today.
And specifically, I’d like to focus on a single word: “should.” Illinois’s current ethics laws provide for the following: “When a legislator must take official action on a legislative matter as to which he has a conflict situation created by a personal, family, or client legislative interest, he should consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation. If that is not feasible, he should consider the possibility of abstaining from such official action. (5 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 420/3-202)
Not “must,” or “shall,” but “should.”
This permissive language makes Illinois an anomaly on the national stage. Mandatory conflict of interest recusal is pretty much standard across the country, and it’s long overdue for us to strengthen our laws in this area.
Let’s talk a bit about why mandatory language matters. It’s important to recognize why we even have ethical rules in the first place. When voters elect people to represent them, it’s a leap of faith and a show of trust. We send people to Springfield, to Washington, to elected office generally on the presumption that – just like in any workplace – there will be rules of conduct that must be followed, and meaningful repercussions when they’re not.
As James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and if state legislators were angelic, no mandatory language would be needed. But as we’ve seen time and time again, politicians of all stripes, of all party affiliations, have breached the faith and the public trust voters have placed in them.
It’s not the trope that most politicians are corrupt – that’s simply not true. Most of you are good, hard-working public servants. But ethics rules don’t exist for the good apples. They exist for the bad ones, and the bad ones have proven over and over again that they will use any loophole, any nuance, and any permissiveness in ethics laws to their private gain and advantage.
It’s part of the reason why the Statement of Economic Interests form in Illinois is woefully inadequate. We’re glad to see this body considering revisions to that form as well to require more transparency. But even the best Statement of Economic Interests means nothing – nothing – when the word “should” casts a shadow over the sunlight of that disclosure.
It’s understandable that there may be hesitancy to make recusal mandatory when the idea of what exactly constitutes a conflict of interests is a bit nebulous. But again, Illinois is one of the last states to make recusal mandatory, and so our procrastination actually has given us the benefit of other states’ experience. We know that mandatory recusal works, without the concerns that it will be overly broad and ensnare good public servants into faux ethics scandals. We’ve had a chance to look at HB 2844, and while we have no current position on the bill, I’m glad to see mandatory language there and it’s a good starting point for this very important discussion.
I’ll close on this note, a piece of wisdom from Adlai Stevenson: “Public confidence in the integrity of the Government is indispensable to faith in democracy; and when we lose faith in the system, we have lost faith in everything we fight and spend for.” I think that the reforms that we’re discussing today — strengthening the Legislative Inspector General’s office, giving real power to the Legislative Ethics Commission, and changing one word — should to shall — to require recusal when there’s conflict of interest — those will go a long way towards restoring that public confidence and faith in the integrity of our government.
Once again, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today, and I look forward to answering any questions that you might have.