The paranoia level is pretty much at an all-time high at the Illinois Statehouse.
Walk past House Speaker Michael Madigan's office and there's a good chance you'll see him standing in the hallway talking on his cell phone. Madigan won't take any calls that are even remotely political in his own office these days. A few years ago he didn't even have a cell phone.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross requires his leadership team and other political advisers to leave the Statehouse and walk across a parking lot to a private office to talk about even minor campaign issues.
Both the Senate Democratic and the Senate Republican spokespersons won't take campaign-related press calls unless they are out of their respective offices. The Senate GOP spokesperson won't even respond to campaign-related instant messages on her AOL account unless she's at home.
It's all a far cry from just a few short years ago when a House Republican staffer could pull up the latest campaign ad on his state computer. Or when the Senate Republican election-night headquarters was the Senate President's Statehouse office suite. Or when the House Democrats opened a constituent services office in the south suburbs that served politically targeted legislators. Or when calls could be placed to high-level staff members of every caucus during state working hours in order to chat about the latest campaign developments.
The old days, which weren't all that long ago, are over - at least in the General Assembly. I have my doubts about the governor's office, but we'll have to wait and see whether federal prosecutors turn up anything good.
Mike Tristano played a big role in ending the practice of using taxpayer resources to subsidize legislative campaigns. The former House Republican chief of staff didn't do this by organizing a cleanup, but by being so corrupt that he practically begged for a federal investigation and now faces at least a year in prison. Tristano's lawbreaking forced the General Assembly to finally clean up its act - except now some of the precautionary measures border almost on the absurd.
US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's tireless investigations of the George Ryan and Rich Daley administrations have had major impact in Springfield because of the sweeping nature of the probes and the harsh punishments meted out, but yesterday's guilty plea by Tristano hits very close to home. Anyone who has been around the capitol for more than a few years knows that the difference between their own experiences and Tristano's behavior was a matter of blatancy. Make no mistake, Tristano and the House Republicans were by far the worst offenders, but nobody was squeaky clean in that place.
Tristano pled guilty last week to several federal counts. He has been under investigation since 2002.
Tristano admitted to assigning Republican staff members to do campaign work on state time, to using state resources to help House Republican candidates, to coming up with a scheme to dole out state-paid compensatory time to state staffers in order to subsidize their salaries during campaigns and to participating in a scheme to snare over a million dollars in state money to help the infamous George Ryan pal and convicted felon Roger Stanley finance a suburban development project, after which Stanley put one of Tristano's southern Illinois House candidates on the payroll. And that's just what he admitted to.
The feeling seems to be that Tristano will roll on state Rep. Lee Daniels, his former boss. Daniels was the House Republican Leader for 18 years and served one term as House speaker. Statehouse types have been predicting Daniels' demise at the hands of Tristano for a long time, without result, but there was an indication in the plea that Tristano might be rolling over. Tristano admitted that he "reported to and took direction from" Daniels while on staff, but he never came out and said whether Daniels ordered him to do anything illegal.
Again, Springfield people have been predicting Lee Daniels' downfall since 2002, when much of the details from Tristano's guilty plea first surfaced in a Crain's Chicago Business article that was initially researched by attorney Rich Means. Not long after that, Daniels was forced to resign from the state party chairmanship and the federal investigation began in earnest. Every few months since then rumors have circulated that Daniels would be indicted. It hasn't happened yet, and I won't believe it until I see it.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at thecapitolfaxblog.com