Some of the best reflections on the human condition come from Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin or the Bible, so let’s tap one of those reservoirs of reason — Scripture — to describe the apparent conflict of interest that arises when public officials who control our tax dollars also conduct private business that involves those same tax dollars:
“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.”
That saying from Matthew comes to mind after reading a recent Sun-Times story about the tax and budget implications of the private legal work done by firms that employ three prominent elected officials who are also lawyers: Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, chairman of the City Council finance committee; Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan; and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.
Their firms have collectively won more than $114 million in property tax refunds for Cook County businesses since 2003, according to the Sun-Times analysis.
That’s $114 million less for government programs in key areas like education, health, public safety, human services and transportation.
So which is it? Do these men hate their clients and love us taxpayers? Or do they despise taxpayers and hold to their clients?
It’s not entirely clear, and that’s a problem.
In their public lives, we empower Burke, Madigan and Cullerton to manage tax dollars in the best interest of citizens who depend on government services and pay the taxes that fund them.
But how can those elected officials truly fulfill that obligation if, in private practice, their law firms help clients reclaim millions of the same tax dollars, and then receive a percentage of the tax savings as payment for their work?
There’s obviously nothing wrong with major corporations, like the ones these elected officials represent, seeking property tax reductions. It’s perfectly legal, and they’re entitled to competent representation.
Thousands of regular property owners take advantage of the same opportunity.
There’s also nothing wrong with Burke, Madigan and Cullerton using their legal expertise in private practice, especially since their legislative jobs are defined as part-time.
But they shouldn’t be making money for legal work that comes at the expense of the taxpayers they represent in their public positions.
Because those taxpayers have to make up the dollars those lawyer/legislators save for their clients.
And that’s the inherent conflict when you’re serving two masters.
Matthew wouldn’t approve. And he might also wonder if those legislator-lawyers get better deals for their clients than we get on our tax appeals because the officials making the decisions are their political friends and allies, not ours.
Various lawmakers have proposed bills that would limit these conflicts by prohibiting legislators from holding outside jobs, or jobs that intersect with government and involve tax dollars, or by requiring greater transparency in statements of economic interest.
A lot of the information about Burke’s legal work was obtained from disclosure statements with the City of Chicago, and that’s good — at least it’s available so we can see the details and discuss the implications.
Requiring elected officials to provide more specific financial information can help bring other conflicts to light.
But that doesn’t end the conflicts — it simply exposes them.
As for Burke, the Sun-Times calls him Chicago’s “most-conflicted alderman,” noting the many times he abstains from Council votes when they involve the interests of his legal clients.
Those are appropriate gestures, but they’re also ineffectual.
It’s not enough to simply acknowledge potential conflicts. It’s time to eliminate them to ensure taxpayers the people they elect — and generously compensate in salary, perks and benefits — are working for them, and not pitting them against their corporate clients.
Burke, Madigan, Cullerton and the other lawyer/legislators shouldn’t be handling clients and cases that involve tax dollars. Simple as that.
They might lose a little business, but they’d gain the trust and the gratitude of the taxpayers they’re elected to serve.
If they ever do that voluntarily, or their legislative colleagues pass a bill that mandates it, I’ll find something from Shakespeare, Ben Franklin or the Bible that celebrates the occasion.
And to borrow another old saw, this one from English poet Alexander Pope in 1734, I promise not to “damn (them) with faint praise.”
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.