Bag Bagmen: It's High Time To Ban State Inspectors' Fund Raising

Friday, March 30, 2001
by Marc J. Lane

Posted online at on March 30, 2001.

Public confidence in government needs to be restored, and Gov. George H. Ryan should do his part by backing a bill sponsored by Rep. John Fritchey, a Democrat from Chicago, which would ban state inspectors from soliciting campaign contributions.

Those who discharge the public trust aren't hired to be bagmen. And Illinois businesses have an absolute right to compete in a marketplace untainted by the appearance of special access.

Earlier legislative attempts to prohibit political fund raising by state inspectors went nowhere. But the Fritchey initiative's chances have improved now that the public outrage over possible payoffs in Washington is palpable.

That outrage was fueled by former President Bill Clinton, who on his last day in office pardoned an accused tax swindler and racketeer-the ex-husband of a major Clinton donor. He also pardoned two felons who paid Clinton's brother-in-law $400,000 to lobby on their behalf-funds reluctantly returned only after a public outcry. Virtually no one is buying the feeble defense Mr. Clinton and a few of his diehard political cronies have mounted.

Even more recently, the Bush Administration has been criticized for promoting a special-interest legislative agenda friendly to those who "invested" in the new president's campaign.

In Illinois, meanwhile, political fund raising has had life-and-death consequences.

In March 1999, a tractor-trailer collided with an Amtrak train at a railroad grade crossing in Bourbonnais. The driver of the tractor-trailer had been issued a hardship license, fraudulently received after his driving privilege had been suspended for multiple convictions on moving violations. As a result of the crash, 11 people died.

A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) panel reviewed the Illinois commercial driver's license program and confirmed a license-for-cash scam involving state employees who accepted cash bribes to help unqualified drivers obtain commercial driver's licenses. At least $170,000 in bribe money ended up in Gov. Ryan's campaign fund while he was Secretary of State.

The panel made 21 recommendations late last year. The first among them: outlaw political fund raising by state employees while on state property or while conducting state business.

The DOT is right. And so is Mr. Fritchey. When inspectors of car dealerships, nursing homes, day-care centers and other businesses think they need to raise money to advance their careers, corruption is inevitable.

The Fritchey proposal would criminalize any state inspector's solicitation or receipt of a campaign contribution. It would also require the State Police to maintain a confidential hotline to allow violations of the law to be reported.

And it would protect whistleblowers. Anyone who is demoted or fired because he or she reported a violation of the law would be entitled to reinstatement, double back pay with interest and court costs.

To his credit, Gov. Ryan, who issued an executive order banning his employees from raising money for his campaign fund, supports a bill which would compete with Mr. Fritchey's. But the governor is unenthusiastic about a State Police hotline and whistleblower protection, both indispensable to the proposal's effectiveness.

Let's encourage the governor to rethink his position and vigorously back the bill that will really do the job.

Marc J. Lane is a Chicago lawyer and financial planner and an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University.


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Copyright © 2001 by Crain Communications Inc.

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