August 08, 2012

Symposium to focus on government ethics, reform

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A conference featuring several leading political ethicists and political scientists will explore Illinois' troubling political corruption and discuss opportunities for reform.

The conference, hosted by Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, will touch on numerous topics relating to the causes and possible cures for ethical problems in Illinois government. The Institute's "What's in the Water in Illinois? Ethics & Reform Symposium on Illinois Government," is Sept. 27-28 at the Union League Club, 65 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago.

David Yepsen, Institute director, said the focus is on identifying policy and legislative options for meaningful reform. Presenters include public policy practitioners, reformers and leading academics who have worked on the subject for many years.

Along with the panel discussions and the release of an Institute poll on the attitude of Illinois voters towards reform measures, two speakers will give keynote addresses on Sept. 28. Michael Josephson, founder and president of The Josephson Institute, is one of the leading ethicists in the country, and he will discuss "The Problems of Ethics in Government" at 8:30 a.m. Alan Rosenthal, one of the nation's leading political scientists and a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, will present "Changing Legislative Culture," at 12:30 p.m.

"We are bringing together a lot of firepower to talk about why Illinois has these problems, what's been done to try to correct them, and what are the options in the future," Yepsen said. "The good news is a lot of good people in Illinois are hard at work on the problems and the work of this conference will help."

Conference funding comes from the Institute's endowment and a grant from The Joyce Foundation.

Institute founder and former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon is among the Illinois politicians whose legacy includes ethical behavior.

"The purpose of a good public policy institute is to bring together students, academics and political practitioners to work on problems facing society," Yepsen said.  "Ethical behavior in government was a hallmark of Paul Simon's career and we are carrying on that tradition."

A complete symposium schedule, including panel discussion topics and presenters, and online registration are available at Space is limited, with the registration deadline Sept. 24. The registration fee is $25 per day. Registration is also available by contacting the SIU Carbondale Division of Continuing Education at 618/536-7751. Contact Carol Greenlee, Institute project coordinator, at 618/453-4078, for more information.

Yepsen said the conference will shed light on what is wrong in Illinois when it comes to government corruption and ethics problems. These issues cost taxpayers money, gives the state a bad image, and hurt economic development efforts, he said. In addition to the state's poor image because of government corruption, other behaviors, while legal, can be unethical, such as "gaming the pension systems for higher retirement benefits," Yepsen said.

"It really has to stop," he said.

In addition to releasing the poll that focuses on the public's attitude towards reform efforts, the conference will highlight problems and explore options for solutions.

"There's no silver bullet that is going to fix all the problems in Illinois," he said.  "Corruption and ethical problems have been around for decades and it will take years and a lot of work to fix them. There's no reason why one of the most corrupt and unethical states in the country can't do better."

Former governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich are serving time in federal prison on corruption-related convictions. Since 1970, four of the state's seven governors have convictions on their record, with all but one, former Gov. Dan Walker, found guilty of crimes while in public office. And a study earlier this spring by the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the University of Chicago shows Illinois ranks as the third most corrupt state in the nation, trailing only New York and California. The report also states U.S. Justice Department statistics show 1,828 people in Illinois have been convicted in public corruption cases in the last 35 years.

Still, Yepsen said he sees some "good signs" for the future.

"The legislature isn't looking the other way when members are accused of corrupt behavior," he said.  "While a local official is accused of stealing millions, the fact is we wouldn't have known that had other public servants not blown the whistle. There are a half-dozen advocacy groups working full time on various pieces of the reform effort -- redistricting, campaign finance reform, and transparency in government."

This is the first of several conferences the Institute hopes to have that highlight reform issues. A conference set for April 30 in Springfield will focus on redistricting.