Bernard Schoenburg: Lax disclosure rules getting attention
When he was one of seven candidates on the primary ballot for Springfield mayor, BILL McCARTY told me in an interview that not only was he working for the state, but he also had two outside jobs.
He oversaw some events at his family’s banquet facility in Lincoln, and also had a business in which he kept vending machines filled at about a dozen locations.
I was impressed by his work ethic. And I figured some evidence of those jobs would show up on the statement of economic interests that candidates are required to file. But I figured wrong.
And that’s not McCarty’s fault. It’s the fault of a very weak disclosure law — especially for local candidates.
Some of the eight questions on the form that local candidates and officials have to file with their county clerks are more nebulous than the not-very-revealing questions on similar forms that candidates for state office and other state officials have to file with the secretary of state.
The prime example is the first question, most of which on the state form is: “List the name and instrument of ownership in any entity doing business in the State of Illinois, in which the ownership interest held by the person at the date of filing is in excess of $5,000 fair market value or from which dividends in excess of $1,200 were derived during the preceding calendar year.”
Another question — the sixth — asks the name of “any entity doing business in the state of Illinois from which income in excess of $1,200 was derived during the preceding calendar year, other than for professional services. …”
The combination of those two questions (and a third that gets at $1,200 or more in income for professional services) might not give the public any idea how much money is being made, but should help identify the person’s basic sources of income.
But on the local form, the questions are much more narrow.
The first states: “List the name and instrument of ownership in any entity doing business with a unit of local government in relation to which the person is required to file, in which the ownership interest held by the person at the date of filing is in excess of $5,000 fair market value, or from which dividends in excess of $1,200 were received during the preceding calendar year.” I added the italics.
And Question 6 on the local form asks for identification of income more than $1,200, for other than professional services, from “any entity doing business with a unit of local government in relation to which the person is required to file. …”
Note that those questions on the local form require disclosure only if the person owns or is working for a business involved with the local government. Because the banquet hall and vending machines McCarty works with didn’t involve any contract with the city of Springfield, he didn’t have to mention them at all.
When I asked back then, McCarty was able to joke about how much he made from his side businesses. He emailed me at the time that the outside work was “lucrative enough to be worth my time, but not enough to buy a vacation home with.”
And even though he held an important state job, overseeing a budget of $200 million, McCarty was able to answer “N/A,” or not applicable, to seven of eight questions on the local form. The only other answer was to a question asking the name of any unit of government that employed the person during the preceding calendar year. McCarty’s answer was “state of Illinois.”
The lax nature of financial disclosure forms has caught the attention of some people who are more important than myself. Lt. Gov. SHEILA SIMON, who has disclosed her income taxes and a personal financial statement that shows income, assets, liabilities and net worth, called even the current state forms “practically meaningless to the people we serve.”
She also has had top staffers disclose financial information, using disclosure forms modeled after those that have to be filled out by federal officeholders.
“Maybe what I’ve disclosed is one extreme, but we have a whole lot of room for improvement” in economic disclosure forms, Simon said. “I think it would be a positive thing for us.”
She also said it would make sense to have the same forms for local and state candidates.
State Sen. DAN KOTOWSKI, D-Park Ridge, is working on legislation to tighten disclosure requirements.
“I just think it’s very important that the general public get information about potential conflicts of interest,” Kotowski said.
“We hope her transparency is contagious,” CINDI CANARY, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said of Simon’s self-imposed level of reporting.
Any change potentially would involve lots of people. In Sangamon County alone, County Clerk JOE AIELLO said, slightly less than 1,800 people are required to file annually with his office — and those don’t include state-level candidates or workers, who file with the secretary of state.
Simon hopes for agreement on reform.
“There are so many ways that we could go to improve this statement that just about any direction would be better,” Simon said.
McCarty — who, again, correctly followed disclosure law — is now the director of the office of management and budget for the city of Springfield. He is trying to sell his vending-machine firm, but he still plans to do events or special buffets — which mostly take place on weekends — at the old Lincoln Depot restaurant. He and his wife PENNY own the business and contents, and his wife’s parents own the building and grounds.
BRAD COLE, new downstate director for U.S. Sen. MARK KIRK, R-Ill., is being paid $85,000 annually. Kirk’s communications director had emailed me a lower figure.
Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or email@example.com.