Politics & Policy

Mr. Ethics

Obama's mentor retires.

Denver“[E]thics reforms means getting officials to limit gifts to themselves.” Those are the words of Emil Jones, president of the Illinois senate, in his speech at the Democratic Convention Monday.

Jones would know. He is Barack Obama’s political mentor, and he can now give himself a $578,000 gift. It is a perfectly legal and completely corrupt arrangement that he made ten years ago, with just a little help from Obama.

#ad#If you listen to Barack Obama’s supporters, you might get the impression that the presumptive Democratic nominee did something to reform Illinois when he served there. Sometimes they mention Obama’s involvement in a 1998 ethics bill. They probably won’t mention that the law they are discussing could soon make Jones a wealthy man. Such stories do not fit the image of the bipartisan reformer that Obama’s campaign has spent millions of dollars projecting.

At the Saddleback Forum two weeks ago, Obama was asked to name one time when he had acted against his own or his party’s interests for the good of the nation. He responded by citing his work with John McCain on ethics reform — work that in fact never occurred. The two men never did work together on ethics reform — in fact they clashed in a nasty exchange of letters over the issue after meeting once to discuss it. Obama’s fictional answer to this question was revealing, given that the entire premise of his campaign is his alleged commitment to bipartisan reform.

Some of Obama’s supporters assert that he did at least reform Illinois’s ethics laws. You can judge for yourself what kind of ethics laws govern Illinois today by looking at what people can get away with.

Monday we explored how Senator Obama and his staff helped obtain $320,000 in state grants for Robert Blackwell Jr. — a political donor and client of Obama’s private law practice. Blackwell had just paid Obama $112,000 in retainer fees when the grant money started coming in, and he went on to be a large Obama donor. Somehow, When Obama wrote a letter for his private law client to receive a grant, he was not violating Illinois ethics laws.

When Obama tried to hide the obvious conflict of interest by burying Blackwell’s companies on his senate disclosure forms, amid a list of hundreds of his firm’s law clients, he was not violating Illinois ethics laws.

When Obama failed to mention in those forms that Blackwell had paid a majority of his income in 2001, and was not just any old client, Obama was not breaking Illinois ethics laws.

Obama’s aide, Dan Shomon was working part-time for Obama and part-time for Blackwell, the beneficiary of the grants he helped obtain. Apparently, that did not violate Illinois ethics laws, either.

Perhaps you are getting an impression of Illinois ethics laws — weak, toothless, easy to bend, and impossible to break. That is true. And it’s not even the half of it.

Emil Jones caused a splash here this week when witnesses saw him call a fellow convention-goer an “Uncle Tom” for supporting Hillary Clinton. But if anyone would bother to read Chicago’s excellent newspapers, they would discover that the real splash came last week, when Jones announced his upcoming retirement from public service.

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When Jones leaves office, he will be allowed to take with him $577,605.04 from his campaign fund, which he can roll into his own bank account. That doesn’t violate Illinois ethics laws, either.

We can leave it to a Chicago ethicist to explain how Jones’s contributors have not in fact been paying bribes for all these years, but at least we know why it happened. Under the grandfather provisions of a landmark 1998 Illinois ethics law, Jones will be able to keep that money for his own personal use — the same amount of money his account contained on June 30, 1998, minus income taxes. As it happens, that provision was part of a famed ethics bill for which Senator Obama sometimes takes credit, wildly exaggerating his role in its passage. As Jones’s story demonstrates, Obama’s supporters are also exaggerating the law’s positive effects.

#ad#This ethics bill — which passed in a not-so-close 52-4 vote in the Illinois senate — did not clean up Illinois politics. It did at least bar political fundraising on state property. It blocked lobbyists and contractors from giving personal gifts to legislators. But it did not stop them from giving contributions in the so-called “pay-to-play” game. It did not prevent major political donors like Tony Rezko from influencing the makeup of the powerful boards that control the state’s pension funds, filling them with crooked allies who would help him steal. It did not prevent incumbent legislators from rolling campaign funds into their personal bank accounts.

When the 1998 law passed the state senate on May 22, 1998, it set off a mad dash for incumbent legislators to fill their coffers as quickly as possible, so as to maximize the amount in their accounts on the grandfather date. According to the Chicago Tribune, State Rep. Monique Davis (D.) went so far as to lend her campaign $33,000 five days before the deadline. The campaign of state Sen. George Shadid (D.) borrowed $50,000.

Obama cannot be blamed for any of this because he did not write this 1998 ethics law. In fact, he had very little to do with it until the day it passed. He was not the one to propose the ethics bill in the Illinois senate. He was not even a cosponsor until the day it passed. Five months after the ethics bill was introduced, and more than one month after it reached the senate, Obama was invited by Emil Jones to become its chief Democratic cosponsor. As David Mendell writes in Obama: From Promise to Power, former Rep. Abner Mikva convinced Jones to let Obama handle the legislation. Sen. Dick Klemm (D.) was removed as chief cosponsor and replaced by Obama on May 22, 1998 — the very day the bill passed.

Jones would never have allowed a tough ethics bill to pass. His expected $578,000 retirement package is fitting because it will end a long career he has spent enriching himself in the business of government. Jones’s entire family has somehow made its way onto the government payroll. The Chicago Sun-Times reported last July that his son, Emil Jones III, does not have a college degree, but obtained an unadvertised $57,000 job with the Illinois Department of Commerce. The hire was made shortly after Senator Jones agreed to back Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D.) budget plan. The younger Jones is expected to succeed his father in his senate seat.

Jones’s stepson, John Sterling, owns a technology firm called Synch-Solutions, which received a contract for $700,000 of work for the state budget office in 2007. In that same year, the Chicago Sun-Times found that the company had “a $3.5 million contract from the Chicago Aviation Department, a $1.2 million contract from the cash-strapped Chicago Transit Authority and another $1.2 million from the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority . . . [and] a separate $3 million subcontract through Chicago’s public schools.”

In 2005, Governor Blagojevich rescinded the requirement that the director of mental health at the state’s Department of Human Services be a medical doctor. This allowed Jones’s wife, Lorrie, to take the position, with a salary of $186,000 — an $80,000 raise over her previous salary.

That was not enough money for Jones, whom the Sun-Times found earlier this year was giving himself interest-free loans out of his campaign fund.

Jones is an old ward-heeler who got his start in Chicago politics in 1960, when Democrats were digging up entire cemeteries to get out the vote for JFK. With his sham 1998 ethics bill, he protected his own nest-egg and can now retire comfortably.

And in the process, he made Barack Obama look just a bit like a reformer. If you don’t look too closely, that is.

David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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