Tollway Revolving Door Opens Ethics Questions

Illinois State Toll Highway Authority Director Brian McPartlin announced today that he is leaving the tollway and taking a job with McDonough Associates. McDonough Associates is a major Tollway contractor; their contracts in FY09 (ie, in the last three months) total more than $20 million, significantly more than any other year since FY05 and nearly triple the value of their FY08 contracts.

If you think this looks awful, we agree.

The 2003 Ethics Act contains provisions intended to shut the revolving door between state officials and their contractors by prohibiting employment with a contractor for one year after leaving the state agency. McPartlin says he received a waiver from that prohibition. According to the law, the Executive Ethics Commission "shall … grant… [a waiver] upon a showing that the prospective employment or relationship did not affect" the issuance of contracts.

So what to do here? Let's start with some questions. When did he start a job search? Did he approach this company or did the company approach him? Has he negotiated with other firms? When he began talks with this company, did he notify his board and remove himself from any Tollway matters with the firm? When did he get the waiver? Were any contracts awarded after he applied for the waiver?

But it seems we should also take another look at the 2003 Act. ICPR has supported Sunshine in Ethics laws in the past, and we continue to think that the 2003 Act ought to be tweaked to give the public more confidence in how the law is carried out. Currently, the EEC does not disclose who applied for waivers, or even who got them. The law greatly limits what the two Ethics Commissions can tell the public about their work. While this is appropriate at the time of an allegation, we continue to think that the Commissions should be able to say more about final decisions.

It may also be wise to give the Commissions more discretion when considering to grant waivers. That "shall" in the statute doesn't give the Commissions room for deliberation.

The 2003 Act was a gigantic leap forward for the state, but it was not the final word. It's been amended at least four times since it was enacted. McPartlin's departure shows it may be time for another tweaking.