Obama’s role in Ill. ethics bill was complicated

Barack Obama likes to give himself star billing for his role in enacting ethics reforms in Illinois a decade ago, but he didn’t act alone.

Barack Obama likes to give himself star billing for his role in enacting ethics reforms in Illinois a decade ago, but he didn’t act alone.

"When I was in Illinois, I passed the toughest ethics reform in 25 years there, despite the opposition of Democrats and Republicans," the Democratic presidential candidate told a New Hampshire audience last month.

In fact, Obama was part of an ensemble that negotiated the legislation and built support for it. And the ethics bill passed by lopsided margins of 52-4 in the Senate and 102-3 in the House, although its riskier moments came earlier during those behind-the-scene negotiations that Obama was heavily involved in.

Part of the price for that victory was leaving a major loophole in the law. While new legislators were barred from using campaign money for personal use, those already in office could keep using the campaign money they already had for anything they wanted — Cadillacs, college tuition, whatever.

For instance, Senate President Emil Jones — who helped Obama reach the U.S. Senate — could walk away with as much as $578,000 when he retires next year. He can use that for political purposes or simply spend it as personal income, as long as he pays taxes on it.

Still, government watchdog groups say the 1998 legislation was a major step in a state with notoriously lax laws on ethics and campaign money. "In Illinois, it was a revolution," said Cindi Canary, head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The measure, the first Illinois reform legislation since the Watergate era, modernized campaign disclosure requirements, restricted personal use of campaign money, limited gifts from lobbyists to officials and set up ethics commissions to enforce the law.

Obama played an important role in passing it, say others involved in the effort, but he doesn’t deserve sole credit.

"I have seen his role overhyped," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "These things happen in a campaign. Your handlers are likely to maximize things and minimize others."

It’s not just handlers.

"I called it legalized bribery," Obama recently said of the contributions that politicians could pocket for themselves. "And while it didn’t make me the most popular guy in Springfield, Illinois, I put an end to it."

His presidential campaign defends such statements, saying he played a key role and worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle.

The reform effort began when retired U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., instructed an aide, Lawrence, to see what could be accomplished. Lawrence began contacting legislative leaders, and they appointed a group to negotiate an ethics package.

As his representative, Jones chose Obama, then a 36-year-old who had been in the state Senate for just a year.

Obama was a valuable member of the negotiating group, Lawrence and other negotiators say. As an experienced attorney and eager advocate of reform, he asked insightful questions and devoted many hours to the issue.

Canary says Obama also played a big role by selling it to Senate Democrats. Jones, the Senate president, agreed that Obama faced significant skepticism as he shuttled between his colleagues and the ethics negotiating team.

But as the process inched along, it became clear that lawmakers would never vote for an absolute ban on using campaign money for personal matters.

Under Illinois law, officials could spend the money however they wanted. Some officials paid themselves campaign salaries, sent their children to college, even paid off home mortgages.

Lawrence said the idea of a compromise emerged: The amount of money in each politician’s account as of June 30, 1998, would be the amount they could continue to use however they wanted. Anything above that, or any money raised by new officials, would be limited to political uses.

The grandfather clause allowed Illinois politicians to continue making personal use of a combined $15 million, an Associated Press analysis showed. Obama was eligible to convert just $14,000 to personal use and chose not to do so.

Obama’s campaign says the loophole was vital to the bill’s success. "Making the law apply retroactively was a poison pill that…would have killed the bill," said spokesman Justin DeJong.

The legislation’s fate was much dicier than the final votes would suggest. Once it came to the floor, few lawmakers could risk voting "no." The real struggle was behind the scenes, coming up with a version that legislative leaders would present to their nervous members. AP

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