In 2003, Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich ordered mandatory online ethics training for all state employees. Illinois had a reputation for being a politically corrupt state, and Blagojevich was determined to put an end to that.
He told USA Today, "To truly change the culture in state government, we need to ensure that everyone involved–-from the elected officials down to the mailroom clerks–-understands what the rules are and how they apply to our work as employees of the public."
But apparently the governor forgot to take the mandatory online ethics training himself. And so, on Dec. 9, FBI agents arrested Blago for trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by president-elect Barack Obama, as well as other acts of political corruption, including attempting to bribe a hospital administrator and attempted extortion of the Chicago Tribune. According to U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald (the same federal prosecutor who convicted Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame affair, while letting actual leaker Richard Armitage off the hook), Blagojevich's actions "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave."
Courtroom sketch of Gov. Blagojevich in track suit he wore for his perp walk
The online ethics training specifies that one of the things state employees aren't allowed to do is sell jobs or favors:
S 5-30. Prohibited offer or promise. An officer or employee of the executive or legislative branch or a candidate for an executive or legislative branch office may not promise anything of value related to State government, including but not limited to positions in State government, promotions, or salary increases, in consideration for a contribution to a political committee, political party, or other entity that has as one of its purposes the financial support of a candidate for elective office.
Section 5-30 of the Illinois Ethics Law
Not only did state employees have to take an online exam on these complex regulations, they were threatened with dismissal if they went through the training and ethics test too quickly, even if their answers were correct:
After passing a new online test on ethics required of all state employees, [a] tenured professor in the English department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale received a notice from his university ethics officer and from the state inspector general that he was not in compliance with state ethics regulations, a failure that state officials said could result in punishment that included dismissal. The reason? He had completed the test too quickly.
And just in time for the 2008 election, university employees were told that attending political rallies on campus, wearing campaign buttons, or putting election bumper stickers on their cars in university parking lots would violate the state's ethics law:
Prohibited Political Activity
- Wearing a pin or t-shirt in support of the Democratic Party or Republican Party, or a Democratic/Republican candidate.
- Attending a rally on University property specific to a political candidate or party -- regardless of whether or not you are on University time.
from the Illinois Ethics Newsletter
The Illinois online ethics training consisted of a series of scenarios designed to prevent exactly the kind of behavior that Gov. Blagojevich is charged with. Had Blago taken the training, he might have avoided an unpleasant FBI knock-and-announce at his Chicago home:
Scenario #2: Gifts from prohibited sources
You are the governor of a large Midwestern state and you have just appropriated $8 million to a local children's hospital. When you meet the hospital director at a charity luncheon, he seems very grateful. Which of the following can you do while he's in such a good mood without violating the Gift Ban Act?
- You can ask him to donate $50,000 to your campaign committee
- You can ask your chief aide to solicit the $50,000, explaining that you are not permitted to accept it personally due to the law.
- You can take back the $8 million and reallocate it to another not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization, because the hospital director should have given you the $50,000 without your having to ask for it.
If you selected all of the above, you are correct. The governor of Illinois is required to violate the State ethics law whenever he is low on funds, so long as he doesn't take the money directly from the State treasury.
Scenario #3: Personal use of State resources (e-mail and telephone)
You are an elected State official and you have recently started selling political favors for additional income. You learn that a local newspaper which has been highly critical of your administration has applied for State financing to improve a baseball stadium that it owns. You are inclined to approve the application on the condition that the newspaper's publisher fire the unfriendly editorial board. Are you allowed to use your State e-mail account and wiretapped telephone for this purpose?
No. State law does not allow employees to use State resources for personal matters. Please refer to the Acceptable Use Policy (Section 19.5 - Information Security Policy of the Business and Financial Policies and Procedures Manual). Even if you plan to address e-mail and place phone calls related to your sales of political favor after work in the evenings or on weekends, it is still not permissible.
Scenario #5: Prohibited Political Activity
You are a University employee and your neighbor is selling a seat in the United States Senate. You really want to buy that seat, so you have offered to help with your neighbor's campaign for governor. You have decided to print money on the your department's high-resolution color printer during your lunch hour to finance that campaign and pay for your senate seat. Is this allowed?
No. As defined in the definitions section of the General Provisions section (5 ILCS 430/1-5) of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, only the federal government can print money on high-resolution color printers, plus the use of state/university property for the bribing of a political candidate is considered a "prohibited political activity."
Three scenarios from the Illinois Ethics Office which Gov. Blagojevich should have read as part of his mandatory online ethics training
In the end, the ethics training might not have helped the governor. It was an open secret that the feds had been bugging his calls, yet the day before he was arrested, Blagojevich dared investigators to listen in: "I should say if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it . . . . it kinda smells like Nixon and Watergate."
Whether or not Nixon's rolling over in his grave, it's become a tradition for Illinois governors to face corruption charges. Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, is serving a six-year prison term for selling drivers licenses when he was Secretary of State, so it was no surprise when the FBI showed up at Blago's house at 6 a.m. and snapped the cuffs on him.
Gov. George Ryan leaves home for federal prison
The examples of Blagojevich and Ryan should be a lesson to their successors. Since the biggest claims on Illinois state budgets are education and prisons, future governors will have to increase school funding to ensure that no teacher is left behind, ethically. But the governors will also have to build new prisons because they will certainly need a comfortable place to retire sooner or later.
Following the example of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who auctioned off her state's private jet online, right after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arraigned in federal court on corruption charges, one of his supporters put the state's vacant Senate seat up for auction on eBay to help defray the governor's legal expenses.
UPDATE: The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Gov. Blagojevich did indeed take the annual ethics training:
"The ethics-training program that Blagojevich took at 1:27 p.m. on April 26, 2006," contains a scenario in which a donor asks a public official whether he can get a position on a state board in exchange for a campaign contribution, and then wonders how much that might cost. The newspaper obtained the Governor's tests through a Freedom of Information Act request, but that report didn't indicate whether Blago thought such a request was ethical or not.