Efforts at transparency in government lost in translation

Photo of Champaign County Clerk's OfficeDanielle Sheppard
The Champaign county clerk's office collects nearly 2,000 statement of economic interest forms each year from local elected officials and high-ranking government employees. But few of them disclose any information.

Illinois state law requires government officials in Champaign County to file forms disclosing financial dealings that might lead to conflicts of interest in their official duties.

But a review by CU-CitizenAccess.org of over 9,000 forms filed by officials over the past five years found that an average 16 percent of officials reveal any specific information.

Most officials answered each of the eight questions on their filings with “N/A” – not applicable – “none” or sometimes merely a slash through the answer lines.

State officials turn in statements of economic interest to the Secretary of State, while local officials file them with their county clerk.

But Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten said the form is so vague and full of legal jargon that even he does not know exactly what it asks for.

“The procedure is well-intentioned, but severely lacking in execution,” Hulten said. “We should ask those questions clearly, so the person doesn’t need an attorney to fill out the form.”

The review also found that there is little enforcement action against the several dozen officials who failed to file each year with the county clerk as required by law.

As for the lack of enforcement, Hulten said the actual consequences for failing to turn the form in or filling it out with wrong information are slim to none  — even though the law prescribes late fines of up to $100 a day, and a Class A misdemeanor for those who willfully file false statements.

A candidate for office might become ineligible if he or she did not fill out the form, because the county clerk’s office gives the names of candidates who do not file to the state board of elections, Hulten said.

Any other penalties are rarely, if ever, enforced. According to current law, the county clerk should pass on the names of all government officials who failed to file to the state’s attorney, who would collect monetary fines.  Hulten said he had not done that in past years because he was unfamiliar with that portion of the law — “it’s so lightly enforced throughout the state,” he said — and he will begin forwarding the names.

But even then, he said, he “cannot imagine a state’s attorney office that is tasked with violent crimes devoting staff resources to tracking down people who’ve failed to file statements of economic interest.”

A spokesman for Champaign County state’s attorney Julia Rietz said Reitz would not respond to repeated requests for comment.

‘Riddled with loopholes’

Those who must file in Champaign include elected officials and candidates for those offices, appointed board members on planning commissions and zoning boards, and employees of local government bodies who serve as the head of a department or oversee at least 20 employees.  Hulten said he has heard disputes over whether judges are required to file.

The information the form asks local officials to disclose include:
•    Companies they are involved with that might do business with their government agency
•    Outside upper-level management or advisory positions
•    “Professional services” resulting in an income of more than $5,000
•    Real estate assets with capital gains of more than $5,000
•    Other units of government they are involved with
•    Gifts or honoraria above $500

The form also says to include “the interest … of a spouse or any other party.”

Hulten said that he errs on the side of caution and discloses more than what he thinks is asked for. For example, he includes information on his wife, he said, although a CU-CitizenAccess review found that most people don’t mention their spouses.

The form local officials have to fill out is “just riddled with loopholes and exceptions,” said David Morrison, acting director of public interest advocacy group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The campaign found in a 2008 study that a lack of disclosure on economic interest forms existed on the state level as well.

That year, 72 percent of candidates and incumbents for the state’s General Assembly revealed information on their forms, which is actually more than four times as often as Champaign County officials.

But there have been recent efforts to address these problems: In May, the Illinois Senate passed an amendment, 52-1, revising the language on the forms for both state and local officials. The questions would be completely reworded and jargon like “spouse or any other party” more clearly defined.

The bill is now in the state House and may be voted on during the veto session in October.

Lieutenant governor Sheila Simon, who proposed the legislative amendment this year,  said the conflict of interest forms should provide a more defined “slice of information into the office holder and their income and assets” and be accessible to the public online.

“The form is full of questions that are hard to understand, even for someone who’s trying to honestly answer each question,” Simon said. “The current economic interest form is 40 years old. Age is not always a bad thing, but in this case it is.”

Encouraging transparency

Some government bodies supplement these state-mandated disclosures with their own discussions about conflict of interest. The Champaign Park District, which requires all employees to disclose potential conflicts,  had such a discussion last year on whether one of its board members should refrain from a vote.

In January 2012, the park district was reviewing proposals from architecture firms that wanted to design the new Leonhard Recreation Center in southwest Champaign.  Some of the firms mentioned Champaign-based construction company Petry-Kuhne as a member of their preferred team, said park district board vice-president Joe Petry.

Petry was appointed by the board to review the proposals with the park district staff, but his brother-in-law and some of his cousins work for Petry-Kuhne, he said.  He participated in the discussion but declined to vote on the proposals at the Jan. 11, 2012, board meeting.  He and his wife have no direct ties to Petry-Kuhne, he later said in an email to CU-CitizenAccess.

The state conflict of interest form does not address non-immediate family ties in an attempt to protect financial information of private citizens, Simon said.  The revised form would only require a disclosure of extended family members, including brothers-in-law and first cousins, if they were lobbyists.

So legally, Petry said he was free to vote on Petry-Kuhne. But the park district’s internal policy stated that “business dealings that appear to create a conflict between the interests of the park district and an employee are unacceptable.”

At the following board meeting, Petry clarified that he did not vote on the proposals because he wanted to avoid questions about “his integrity, the board’s integrity or the company’s integrity,” according to the meeting’s minutes.

After last year’s discussion over his interest in Petry-Kuhne, he now votes on items involving the company. In March 2012, for example, Petry-Kuhne won a $200,000 bid for storage of park district materials, and Petry was one of the four votes in favor of it, according to minutes.

“When contractors such as Petry-Kuhne bid for work, we almost always get conventional bids,” he said, “and I can vote for the lowest responsive bidder without that being an issue for me ethically as I will nearly always vote for the lowest responsive bidder no matter who they are.”
Still, he said he wants to be cautious with the park district board’s image.
“We are here to serve the public interest,” he said. “The public needs to be confident that we are acting in their best interest.”

What’s next

Simon has a similar goal in revising the statement of economic interest forms: improving the public’s confidence that its politicians are making ethical decisions.

“Most people who hold office in the state of Illinois are doing it out of a sense of public service. It’s that small number who do it to line their own pockets who make it challenging for the rest of us,” she said.

The bill to amend the current statement of economic interest laws, SB 1361, proposes a six-question form with more direct and understandable language.

The proposed bill would also encourage that statements be filled out online.  In Champaign County, most statements are now filled out by hand and scanned onto a computer after they are filed. Finding a specific statement — and reading the filer’s handwriting — is a tedious process.

The searching process is made more complicated because some local officials filed duplicate forms for the same positions, and others filed separate forms for multiple posts, a CU-CitizenAccess review found.

An online system for filing and searching already exists in Cook County.  Hulten said Champaign County is working to put a similar system online for 2014 filings.

However, the proposed bill will not change the enforcement of consequences for failing to file or filing with incorrect information.

Last year, about 30 to 40 people never turned the forms in at all, according to an estimate by the county clerk’s office.

And there is no system in place for audits of the forms, Hulten said.

Simon said she’s not “looking for anything punitive” in amending the bill. Instead, she wants the expectations for government officials to be clearer, she said.

She declined to predict whether the bill would pass the Legislature.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform tried to work with legislators to present a similar amendment in 2009 but was not successful, Morrison said. He is more optimistic about this attempt, but change, he said, “has not been working quickly.”

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