Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley stepped down this week after 22 years in office. He will be taking along the $1.1 million parachute his campaign donors have furnished him over the years.
Daley is not known for greed. Despite ample evidence that his kin and close friends have cashed in on his dictatorial rule, he has never been credibly accused of taking a dime that wasn’t his. He has always preferred the raw exercise of power — legal or not — over the filthy lucre to which most Chicago politicians succumb.
Still, Daley is now a beneficiary of the benighted ethics rules that govern the Prairie State. Like other Illinois elected officials who were in office June 30, 1998, Daley is permitted to keep for himself whatever amount was in his campaign account on that day — in the mayor’s case, $1.1 million.
That’s not to say these rules were a step backward. But if they represent a step forward, it’s a step into the 16th century. Previously, Illinois elected officials had been allowed to keep for themselves whatever their political donors gave them. It was an open and legal system of bribery.
The ethics law that passed the state Legislature in May 1998 was designed primarily to mollify the public. It phased out the bribery loophole so gradually that it is still with us today, 14 years later. The expiration date was still in the future when it passed, and so it set off a mad dash of fundraising, with at least two legislators going so far as to borrow campaign money just ahead of the June 30 deadline.
Former state Senate President Emil Jones had about $575,000 on the expiration date and has more than that today. He retired in 2008, and has not officially cashed out what he can.
Instead, he makes interest-free loans to himself from the campaign account, some of which he pays back. He buys Chicago Bulls tickets and trips to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., and he pays his cell phone bills — all perfectly legal, although if a federal candidate did this sort of thing they would probably end up in prison.
Jones is still taking donations too. Just last month, Hewlett-Packard gave him $4,000. The company did not respond to calls asking why it was potentially subsidizing a former state senator’s retirement.
As a generation of Illinois politicians retires with the opportunity to take campaign cash-outs (and some have), and as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich begins his second corruption trial, we are reminded how little the so-called ethics reform did to clean up Illinois in its first 13 years. Maybe we can revisit it in 2024.
Columnist David Freddoso is The Washington Examiner’s online opinion editor.