Independent. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s an adjective meaning “free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority.”
We seem to be in need of a refresher on the concept.
When Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan announced last week his chief of staff, Tim Mapes, had resigned from his job following allegations by clerk’s office employee Sherri Garrett that Mapes repeatedly fumbled harassment allegations and behaved inappropriately toward her and others, Madigan added, “I intend to appoint an individual with extensive experience conducting investigations to review all operations of the House of Representatives, including but not limited to the Clerk’s Office where Ms. Garrett works.”
The problem with that is no one can trust any experienced investigator to conduct an independent probe if that investigator is hired by Madigan, the man who oversees House operations, as women claim lawmakers and House employees have subjected them to sexual harassment.
Special Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter said recently she doesn’t believe she has a conflict of interest in investigating Madigan or his office over charges by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy that Mapes and state Rep. Bob Rita were threatening retaliation against her because she publicly questioned Madigan’s handling of earlier harassment complaints. But Porter first was contacted to see if she would be willing to take on the job by Heather Wier Vaught, an attorney who has handled harassment problems for Madigan. So, can Porter truly be seen as entirely independent of Madigan? Even the appearance of a conflict creates a question about a lack of independence.
And what about the Chicago Tribune’s investigation of people in positions of power sexually abusing Chicago Public Schools students? One of the key findings in that report is that the CPS law department is investigating claims of sexual abuse at the same time it is defending CPS against lawsuits from some of the victims. That’s a clear conflict of interest, not anything that could be construed as independent.
Nicholas Schuler, the inspector general for the Chicago Public Schools, wrote a letter to school board chairman Frank Clark last week suggesting his office take over investigations of sex abuse in the schools.
Having the CPS law department both defend and investigate sex abuse claims creates a “morass of competing interests that makes it impossible to tell whether the law department is working for student victims or trying to limit the district’s legal exposure.”
Giving the CPS inspector general the authority to investigate abuse claims, Schuler wrote, “would assure the public that such allegations would be investigated without favor or prejudice by a fact finder with a record of independence and transparency.
“CPS children, parents and employees deserve no less,” Schuler concluded.
Yet again and again, we see instances of a lack of understanding or commitment to transparency and independence.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s board of commissioners last week appointed an acting executive director, John P. Murray, apparently replacing Executive Director David St. Pierre. The MWRD website still lauds St. Pierre as one of the “top utility leaders in the country.” What happened to St. Pierre? Where is he? Will he return? Is he under investigation? We don’t know. There was no discussion of the situation as commissioners unanimously approved Murray’s appointment last week. The water reclamation district spends $1 billion in tax dollars annually and has taken significant strides toward creating an inspector general to provide professional oversight and auditing. Let’s hope some transparency and independence will come with that new role.
Each of these situations in our governments would benefit greatly from some help by someone who is entirely free from outside control. In fact, it’s the only way any of us can regain trust they’re operating properly.
It’s time we demand independence.
Madeleine Doubek is vice president of policy for the Better Government Association.