Illinois state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, had just finished lunch with a state senator on an August afternoon in Highland Park. They stepped outside to talk.
“Let’s be clear,” Arroyo allegedly told the state senator. “My word is my bond and my, my reputation.”
Federal agents were listening to Arroyo.
The state senator was wearing a wire.
Arroyo was arrested Oct. 25 and charged with bribery of a state official. According to the federal complaint, Arroyo tried to steer $2,500 a month to the unnamed state senator in exchange for backing legislation related to gambling sweepstakes. If convicted, Arroyo faces up to 10 years in prison.
This is the part of the story where House Speaker Mike Madigan pretends to care.
As with all of the corruption scandals under his 34-year reign as House speaker – and within the Democratic Party of Illinois that he has chaired for 21 years – Madigan took steps to remove the offending lawmaker from office and promised to push for ethics reforms.
“I have instructed my staff to begin bringing together stakeholders and experts to closely examine our ethics and lobbying laws and find ways to strengthen existing law,” he said.
The same song and dance happened in 2009 following the impeachment and indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. An Illinois ethics task force traveled the state, brought together “stakeholders and experts” and issued a 95-page report full of reform recommendations.
The report broke down into eight sections. Section four included proposals to address “structural problems” that lead to corruption and inefficiency in state government. There were three key points: pass nonpartisan legislative maps, install term limits for legislative leaders, and make changes to the House and Senate rules curbing the power of leadership.
A decade later, Madigan’s House has not adopted a single one of those reform recommendations.
Arroyo was one of Madigan’s assistant majority leaders and chairman of the House Appropriations-Capital Committee, where he shepherded Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s gas tax hike and $45 billion infrastructure package. He is accused of bribing the state senator to push a gambling bill because that bill would have benefited one of his lobbying clients.
Wait, state lawmakers have lobbying clients?
Arroyo was a registered lobbyist with the city of Chicago, meaning he could legally leverage his political power in Springfield for cash. And he is by no means alone in the legislature in doing so.
A reporter asked Madigan why it was still legal for a lawmaker to lobby other Illinois governments over which they have tremendous sway. The speaker said he didn’t know.
The true answer: because Madigan wanted it that way. If he didn’t, it would have been changed. Laws governing Illinois lawmakers are underdeveloped, vague and weak because the speaker has left them as such. Madigan, who runs a property tax appeals firm that deals directly with Cook County government and others across the state, benefits from these weak laws.
Unfortunately, Springfield is still home to some Madigan apologists when it comes to corruption. Their argument is that the speaker didn’t know all of this bad behavior was happening. A few bad apples simply got out of hand, and the feds will mete out justice as needed.
What more could it take for Madigan to shoulder blame?
The chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois in 2019 alone has seen the following, in addition to Arroyo’s arrest:
- A 14-count corruption indictment against Democratic machine boss Ald. Ed Burke.
- A 41-count corruption indictment against suburban Democratic state Sen. Tom Cullerton.
- Revelations that Democratic state Sen. Terry Link (the unnamed senator in the Arroyo complaint, according to the Chicago Tribune) has been cooperating with the federal government for three years after authorities received evidence he filed false income tax returns. Link denies cooperating with the FBI.
- Homes of three of his closest confidants raided by federal authorities
Gov. J.B. Pritzker did not call out Madigan’s longstanding failure to address corruption, and wouldn’t say whether the speaker should step down.
But the 2009 report offered a worthwhile thought for Illinoisans who have become jaded:
“We must also remember that democracy requires citizens to be persistent watchdogs of our government … This blueprint for reform will be meaningless unless the changes we have envisioned become reality. This goal now belongs to all of us and collectively we can obtain the government we desire.”
Don’t despair. Be part of the story where Illinoisans break the mold.
Austin Berg is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute who wrote this column for The Center Square. Austin can be reached at email@example.com.