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Our view: ‘Rita’s law’ could curb corruption

Published: Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014 11:17 p.m. CDT

When out-of-staters are asked what comes to mind when they think about Illinois, government corruption is near the top of the list.

Illinoisans would ruefully agree. And who can blame them?

Illinois’ last two governors, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, ended up in prison on corruption charges, and before them, ex-governors Otto Kerner and Dan Walker did time for their crimes.

Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, D-Chicago, is currently behind bars because of a corruption conviction.

We can think back to the days of Secretary of State Paul Powell and his shoeboxes full of cash, or just as recently as 2012, when former Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell’s massive municipal theft of nearly $54 million was uncovered.

The conviction last month of state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, for soliciting a $7,000 bribe didn’t make much of a splash in this scandal-scarred state. Illinoisans are accustomed to such things.

However, when corruption is quantified in dollars and cents so you know how much it’s costing individuals, maybe people will sit up and take notice.

Two professors recently performed that service for Illinois and other corruption-plagued states.

John Mikesell is an Indiana University professor of public and environmental affairs, and Cheol Liu is an assistant professor of public policy at City University of Hong Kong.

They studied public corruption cases across America between 1997 and 2008, named the 10 most corrupt states (Illinois easily made this rogue’s gallery), and calculated what that corruption cost taxpayers per capita.

The “corruption tax,” as they dubbed it, came to an average of $1,308 a person in those states.

So, Illinois has more corruption than the average state, and its residents end up paying extra tax dollars because of it.

Prosecution of corrupt officials is only one response to the problem.

Prevention is another.

Elected government officials, who are supposed to be watchdogs over the public purse, have been given a new tool to monitor tax dollars on the local level.

That’s because legislation sponsored by state Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, was signed into law last week by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The law, inspired by Crundwell’s brazen thievery, is designed to give much more attention to the annual audits of city and county governments.

More copies of audits and financial statements will be given to officials.

Public presentations of audit results will be required, where questions can be asked of the auditors.

If the governmental entity has a website, the municipality or county board must post information contained in the financial statements of the audit.

The idea is that with more people scrutinizing how the public’s money is spent, the likelihood improves that any monkey business going on will be detected.

And maybe, just maybe, the process will deter larceny-minded public money handlers from helping themselves in the first place.

The new approach to auditing has been dubbed “Rita’s Law,” which sounds appropriate to us.

Clearly, the new process is an improvement over the former law, which required only that audits be completed and placed on file with the state comptroller’s office.

In the future, when Americans are asked their thoughts about Illinois, maybe government corruption won’t place so high on the list. If so, “Rita’s Law” might just deserve some of the credit.

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