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Honest Services Law Coming Back? Rep. Quigley, Sen. Kirk Propose Ethics Legislation

First Posted: 05/09/11 03:23 PM ET Updated: 07/09/11 06:12 AM ET

Bribe

Two Illinois legislators from opposite sides of the aisle are teaming up to introduce a pair of bills in Congress, aimed at shoring up what they see as loopholes in federal ethics law.

Mike Quigley, a Democratic congressman from Chicago's North Side, joined Republican senator Mark Kirk at a press conference Monday morning to announce the two new bills. One would keep the federal government from interfering with state-level pay-to-play laws; the other would reinstate a provision that was sharply pared down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

"Everyone in Illinois knows all too well the devastating costs of corruption, and it’s time to say ‘enough’,” Quigley said in a press release. “This is a bipartisan effort to use every tool at our disposal to make sure both our elected officials and the business they conduct are honest.

The more contentious of the two bills is the Public Officials Accountability Act, which addresses the "honest services" statute used to prosecute such notorious figures as former governor George Ryan and ex-Chicago patronage chief Robert Sorich. That statute made it illegal for elected officials and others to deprive the public of "the intangible right of honest services."

But a Supreme Court ruling last summer cut away much of the expansive interpretation of that language, which has been used for 25 years in cases as far-ranging as Enron corruption and the Conrad Black trial. Instead, the court ruled, "honest services" could only be used to prosecute bribery or kickbacks, what the justices described as the "solid core" of the law.

That ruling forced federal prosecutors to re-indict former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was tried shortly after the ruling. The feds had to alter their case to avoid using much of the honest-services language.

Now, Kirk and Quigley are hoping to reinstate some of that provision, adding language to prosecute "undisclosed conflicts of interest resulting in personal financial gain."

They also proposed the State Ethics Law Protection Act, which would allow states to ban pay-to-play practices in highway contracting without federal interference. It was prompted by an incident in 2008, when Illinois's General Assembly passed such a ban, only to be undercut by the Federal Highway Authority, whose actions they say "effectively creat[ed] a loophole for pay-to-play."

“Public corruption has turned the ‘Land of Honest Abe’ into the ‘Land of Public Corruption,’” said Sen. Kirk in a statement. "We need to make sure our laws help federal prosecutors crack down on public corruption and restore integrity to Illinois.”

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Filed by Will Guzzardi  |