March, 1st 2009

From Burris to much, much worse?

– Liz Mair

You'd have had to be hiding under a rock over the past few months to have missed the on-running drama surrounding President Obama's old Senate seat, beginning with revelations that my personal pick for America's Dodgiest Politician, ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, (allegedly) wanted to sell the thing, and culminating recently in speculation that its current occupant, US Sen. Roland Burris (who Blago appointed), was involved in illegal and/or unethical shenangigans aimed at securing it for himself.

But you might have missed the latest bit of dismaying news surrounding this particular public office, which was reported by the Politico on Friday night:

Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois' state treasurer, plans to announce Monday that he'll run next year for the Democratic nomination for the state's Senate seat, according to two sources familiar with the plans.

Why is this dismaying news, you ask?  Well, sure, Giannoulias is close to the President, but he's also got connections to some more dubious individuals and organizations including, oh... the mob.  Seriously.  Read what Ross Kaminsky wrote for the Denver Post's Politics West site about Giannoulias during the Democratic Convention, at which Giannoulias spoke, last year (choice excerpt):

The NY Post story references the many questions about Giannoulias’ ties to organized crime through Broadway Bank, a Chicago bank that his family owns and where Alexi Giannoulias listed himself both as President and as Chairman of the Board on FEC filings surrounding the campaign contributions mentioned above.

According to a Chicago Tribune article from 2006, Giannoulias “has faced questions about the bank’s multi-million dollar loans to Michael Gioranago, a convicted bookmaker and prostitution ring promoter.” Barack Obama was quoted in the article as saying that he “is concerned by revelations that the bank owned by Illinois Democratic treasurer nominee Alexi Giannoulias' family gave loans to a Chicago crime figure and said the candidate owes him and the public a full accounting.”

Like President Obama, I too am concerned by this.  So should be the people of Illinois, a state fast earning a reputation for electing apparent outright crooks to public office, with too great frequency.  As it stands, they've got one former governor sitting in jail, likely another on the way, and things with Burris haven't been looking terribly hot, either.  Giannoulias is not, shall we say, the change that Illinois needs and irrespective of whether, as the Politico reports, "Democratic leaders are fond of the young state treasurer," Illinois voters should strongly resist any possible urge or inclination to vote for him if he does, indeed, announce and enter the race.

And the GOP needs to get ready to field a strong candidate ready and able to take Giannoulias and/or Burris and/or Rep. Jan Schakowsky (who I consider objectionable on numerous grounds, including philosophical ones) on, full force, no-holds-barred.

That candidate, in my opinion, should be Rep. Mark Kirk (who represents Illinois' 10th district, a suburban Chicago district, and who just happens to have pioneered the Suburban Agenda, which focuses on issues of deep concern to a large swath of Illinois voters, like education and conservation).  This is not least because Kirk has been pretty outspoken on the issues of ethics and corruption, which, separate to his philosophical profile (solid center-right) seems likely to appeal strongly to Illinois voters who must be getting pretty sick of the ongoing shenanigans in which at least some of their public officials appear to routinely engage.

I interviewed Kirk back in 2007, and the topic of pensions for Members of Congress convicted of crimes (an issue on which he was particularly outspoken) came up.  Here's an excerpt: [intro]


Liz Mair: Now, right from the get-go this Congress, you weighed into the ethics debate calling for politicians convicted of a wide range of offenses to be stripped of their pensions.  Ultimately, the House passed a much weaker bill that what you, John Shadegg, Vern Ehlers, Tom Davis and Lee Terry had wanted.  Tell me a little bit about how what was passed fell short in your mind, apart from the aspect of it involving an amendment being written on a napkin.

Mark Kirk: [laughter] Well, we think that any Congressman convicted of a felony should not have a Congressionally-funded pension paid for by the US taxpayer.  Right now, several members of Congress have already been indicted, convicted beyond a shadow of a doubt by a jury of their peers, who have lost all of their appeals, are still collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars per month from the US Treasury because this rule was not in place.  For example Dan Rostenkowsky, convicted of mail fraud, or Randy “Duke” Cunningham convicted of outright bribery. 

Liz Mair: And mail fraud is one of the things that was specifically left out of that Democratic legislation, right?

Mark Kirk: Correct.  Correct.  Dan Rostenkowsky used to take postage stamps from his office, he gave them back to the House Postmaster, who then gave him cash, in his pocket.

Liz Mair:  That’s a pretty novel way of paying yourself more.

Mark Kirk:  Well, it was stunning in its sort of creepy, low-level corruption, and he suffered a felony conviction, and yet still collects a Congressional pension.  So, we put forward the proposal to cancel a pension for any Member of Congress convicted of a felony, if any one of 21 public integrity felonies were committed.  The reason we picked that list was because Speaker Hastert and Speaker Pelosi both voted for this list of 21 felonies in 1996, overwhelmingly.  Unfortunately, other members prevailed on Speaker Pelosi.  I think many of them didn’t want this reform at all.  And by the time that Congress actually considered this reform, we’d gone from 21 separate public integrity felonies, to 4.  And we’d missed the felonies for example covering Rostenkowsky.  The Democratic leadership then attempted on the House floor-- by hand-- to make sure that the current Congress would not be covered by this reform under any circumstance.

Liz Mair: Well, that’s nice since we have somebody who may very well still be keeping thousands of dollars in his refrigerator or his freezer or whatever.

Mark Kirk: Right.  Yes.  Many worry that Congressman Bill Jefferson will be indicted soon and I think that if he is indicted and convicted, he should not be able to collect a Congressional pension.  And so at a minimum, the House and Senate have passed bills to cancel pensions for Members of Congress convicted of a felony, but at the first available opportunity I want to expand the very limited set of reforms.  Just 4 felonies.  I think they’re 17 felonies short of a full ethics package. 

Doesn't this strike you as someone who Illinois' voters should take a close look at, given recent events?  It does me.

Rep. Kirk, please seriously consider getting in this race... ASAP.


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