Cook County Clerk David Orr joined Lt. Governor Sheila Simon Thursday in urging lawmakers to strengthen existing ethics laws, saying current economic disclosures are weak.
“The current state financial disclosure document is flawed by asking questions in ways that fail to identify people’s true economic interests,” Simon said.
Simon plans to ask lawmakers to scrap the current Statement of Economic Interests (SEI) that constitutional officers, elected officials and high-ranking public employees are required to file on an annual basis. The forms are supposed to expose existing or potential conflicts of interest, but the documents use such vague and cumbersome language that the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform has called them “woefully inadequate” and “a waste of paper.”
More than 25,000 elected officials and public employees in Chicago and suburban Cook County file a Statement of Economic Interests (SEI) annually with Orr’s office. Orr applauded Simon for tackling this inadequate method for reporting conflicts of interest.
“The SEI questions are virtually incomprehensible, so the vast majority of people return forms with each question marked ‘Not applicable,'” Orr said. “Revising the disclosure requirements will paint a more-detailed portrait of public officials’ true conflicts of interest.”
The 2011 SEI filing period is currently underway. The deadline to file is May 2. For the first time in Cook County, filers are submitting their statements online. Lists of all filers by jurisdiction and copies of their statements will be posted on the Clerk’s website in June.
To highlight the flaws in the weak forms, Simon released her annual tax returns and provided groundbreaking financial information on her senior staff members.
“Government works best in the sunlight, so we’re starting by shining the light on ourselves,” said Simon, who served on the Illinois Reform Commission. “The economic disclosures currently required by law are weak, reveal very little about any potential conflicts of interest and are practically meaningless to the people we serve. By taking this first step, I encourage other public servants to follow our lead and build a foundation for statewide reform.”
Simon and her staff’s financial disclosures, released shortly after tax day and available on the lieutenant governor’s website, cover some of the same information in the SEIs, but the Simon staff disclosures do so in plain language and in greater detail. Simon’s staff disclosures are modeled after forms used by federal executive officers and their high-ranking employees that are kept confidential.
“Lt. Governor Simon is reforming the system from within, and we hope her transparency is contagious,” said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “She is setting a new standard of accountability and ethical leadership in state government.”
Simon’s 2011 tax returns, and a personal financial statement that she first released in January, show all of her sources of income, assets, liabilities and net worth. Her household reported income of approximately $110,000 last year, donated nearly $2,000 to charity and paid $14,000 in state and federal taxes.
The staff disclosures note all forms of income greater than $200, investment portfolios and sweetheart loans, among other details.
“The current state financial disclosure document is flawed by asking questions in ways that fail to identify people’s true economic interests,” Simon said. “Our disclosures ask useful questions and generate useful answers that will allow us to identify and avoid conflicts to make sure we do what’s right for our constituents.”