Despite ‘checkered past,’ Illinois ranks high for fighting corruption

Susan Du

Illinois ranked tenth in the nation for fighting corruption, according to a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity.

Illinois is notorious for shady politics – four of the last eight Illinois governors have been sentenced to prison, including former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who reported to federal prison in Littleton, Colo., last month. The study highlighted efforts in Illinois to solve the chronic corruption problem.

The study, part of the State Integrity Investigation, rated Illinois in terms of the systems it has in place to prevent and discourage political corruption. Randy Barrett, the center’s communications director, said although some of this year’s top-scoring states have a reputation of being corrupt in the past, the reforms they’ve created to guard against repeat offenses helped earn them high ranks.

“We were not looking at corruption per se,” Barrett said. “We weren’t looking at individuals. We weren’t looking at convictions. We were looking at states’ systems to guard against corruption in the future.”

Barrett said no state received an “A” rating, and despite scoring relatively high overall, Illinois performed poorly in some categories that the study used to measure integrity.

“Illinois’ problem was that its legal framework wasn’t bad, but it was weak in the implementation of those laws,” Barrett said.

In addition to identifying about 300 different qualifiers for what is and isn’t considered “corrupt,” the study was compiled by veteran reporters from every state. They conducted interviews and researched public records in order to rate states based on a variety of criteria, including campaign finance transparency, executive, legislative and judicial accountability, civil service management, lobbying disclosure and pension fund management. Illinois scored an F for redistricting, D for state and civil service management, D for legislative accountability and C for lobbying disclosure.

Some experts, including Medill Watchdog Initiative Director Rick Tulsky, say assigning letter grades to all 50 states oversimplifies a complex political issue.

Tulsky, said he is reluctant to endorse results of an ethics study that reduces state integrity to a rating.

“I know the Center for Public Integrity does good work,” Tulsky said. “But it’s really hard to make sweeping conclusions about who is best or worst because there’s a lot of nuance involved and a lot of interpretation.”

Tulsky said Medill Watchdog’s first project, which compared Illinois lobbying laws with those in other states, ultimately found that legislative ethics is a complicated issue where the language, interpretation and execution of laws often don’t align.

“What I think is absolutely of value is calling public attention to the problem that state laws are too weak and need to be improved, and making the public aware of laws that don’t hold officials responsible is always a good thing,” he added.

Amanda Vinicky, statehouse bureau chief for Illinois Public Radio, led the State Integrity Investigation’s evaluation of Illinois. She said when dealing with complicated issues, journalists can only try to do their best to create as comprehensive of a report as possible.

“Just as with any study, it is difficult to just give a grade,” Vinicky said. “I think this project, just like many others, nonetheless seeks to find some sort of way to measure (integrity). It’s not supposed to be the end-all, be-all of looking at state ethics, so I think anyone reading the study should look at it through that lens.”

Vinicky said one of many difficulties with compiling the integrity report was reconciling the many different ways states operate and the pre-arranged set of 300 to 400 survey questions. She said the study may have missed some issues while highlighting others.

“Obviously when you look at Illinois, we have a very checkered past, and I don’t think all of that was necessarily caught by this study,” Vinicky said. “There wasn’t any ranking on how many public officials are currently in prison for example. That was not measured; that was not the goal. (The study) is supposed to measure what policies states have in place. There was a pretty decent handle of how a state government operates.”

Jessica Floum contributed reporting.

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