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Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005 04:04 pm

Ethical spectacle

I am an ethics outlaw.

Recently I received formal notice that I had failed to complete the required ethics training for state employees. The notice, which included the threat of a $5,000 fine and disciplinary action, was the result of my disagreement with the answers given on the ethics quiz. In other words, I gave the "wrong" answers.

And when I sought to publicize the flaws in the ethics training on my personal Web site, the state threatened to fire me for violating copyright law.

On Dec. 9, the governor's office marked the first anniversary of signing of the Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act into law. A report issued by the Office of Executive Inspector General noted that more than 60,000 state employees underwent ethics training in 2004, with "100 percent compliance," and that more than 54,000 state university employees have undergone training.

If you think this means that state government is more ethical, you obviously haven't seen what passes for ethics training in Illinois.

State-university employees, from professors to painters to students who flip burgers in the campus food court, are all required to take the one-hour Web-based training, in which they learn all the relevant information about how they shouldn't take free use of a yacht from a business they regulate.

After reading through the ethics-training Web site, I can't say that I know more about what is ethical, except that I would never trust the state of Illinois or its well-connected contractors to define it.

The training program was designed by Los Angeles-based LRN, the Legal Knowledge Co., which received a $240,000 contract to create the Web site to train 62,000 employees and recently received a no-bid extension for $858,900 over the next three years. LRN's contract raised its own ethical issues because a company director donated to Gov. Rod Blagojevich's campaign.

There are all sorts of interesting ethical issues that college faculty and staff should confront. Unfortunately, the state's training program doesn't deal with any of them, offering only obvious examples ("a 50 percent discount that a restaurant gives to state health department inspectors only") with no relevance to university employees.

Much of the training advice is completely useless: "You can accept a gift from a personal friend, unless you think your friend could be giving it because of your position." Well, that clears everything up.

But other parts of the training are more alarming. The ethics training advises that university employees "may not start or circulate a petition in support of a particular candidate or political issue, or give money or hand out campaign literature on behalf of a particular candidate or issue. Violate any of these rules and you could be fined, lose your job, or even go to jail." This means a professor teaching a class about political campaigns is banned from handing out campaign literature and threatened with jail.

These bizarre rules may seem unconstitutional, but they're being put into practice. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduate student Thomas Mackaman received a disciplinary ticket because he sent an e-mail about his campaign for state representative from his uiuc.edu account.

The University of Illinois even created an entire new policy because of Mackaman: "Guidelines Concerning Use of University Resources for Political Campaign Activities." The rules declare that faculty, staff, and students "have the right to freely express their views on any subject, including advocacy for/against candidates for public office. In exercising these rights, however, the resources of the University cannot be used." The rules even specifically prohibit faculty from organizing a political debate on campus, proclaiming that only student groups may hold any political events.

The ethics reform in Illinois contained many valuable provisions to limit lobbyist influence, protect whistleblowers, strengthen the Gift Ban Act, and investigate ethics violations. Unfortunately, these reforms are overshadowed by training that has wasted 100,000 hours of state-employee time and an enormous amount of money spent monitoring employees.

The public deserves to know how its tax dollars are being wasted and how the Ethics Act is being misused to restrict First Amendment rights at state universities. It's time for the General Assembly to fix the ethics reform and clarify that it cannot restrict academic freedom and constitutionally protected political rights.

Unless the state of Illinois can create more ethical ethics training, I can't comply without violating my own ethical principles.

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