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On the verge of big advances in political ethics in scandal-plagued Springfield

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy and House Speaker Michael Madigan | Sun-Times file photos

The significant work of some strong women and men who have started cleaning up a rigged ethics process in Springfield should not be lost amid the salacious claims about state Rep. Lou Lang or the retaliation claims involving House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Let’s consider the Madigan situation. A week ago, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy quit a part-time post with the Cook County Sheriff’s office, saying she was getting warning signs from Madigan’s chief of staff and another representative that they might retaliate against her, using that job as leverage over her.

OPINION

A bit more than a week ago, Special Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter said in an email that she did not believe she had a conflict of interest investigating Madigan. This, despite the fact that he had a role in hiring her. Heather Weir Vaught, an attorney who represents Madigan, first reached out to Porter to see if she would be willing to serve, Porter told me. “I have never met or spoken to Michael Madigan,” Porter said. “Neither she nor Madigan hired me. I was appointed to serve by the Legislative Ethics Commission.”

If Porter were to investigate and find reasonable cause that Madigan had violated ethics rules or laws a week ago, the process would have had Porter turning in a summary of her findings to Madigan, as the head of House Democrats. Madigan would be judging and disciplining Madigan. Can you say conflict?

But now, if House Bill 138 is signed into law as it was approved, any findings of questionable behavior by Madigan or the other legislative leaders will bypass them and go to the commission. The leaders can respond only as any other subject of an investigation would. That’s big progress.

Of course, the even split of four Democrats and four Republicans on the Legislative Ethics Commission that considers the legislative inspector general’s work still must be fixed if Illinoisans are to have any trust in the ethics process in Springfield. The rigged commission must be changed. Current lawmakers and former inspectors general have noted commissioners regularly vote along party lines, producing tie votes that quash findings and protect their colleagues from embarrassment.

But there were other significant improvements made in HB 138:

• The legislative inspector general no longer has to seek permission from the commission before launching a probe into any claim of sexual harassment. Big win. Victims of harassment can take some comfort in knowing lawmakers cannot stop this type of investigation by refusing to approve it.

Other claims still require commission approval. That has to change. The commission absolutely must change its internal rules to allow for a truly independent inspector, and then, put that true independence into the law as soon as possible. Inspectors general should not have to seek approval from anyone before launching an investigation or issuing a subpoena.

• Retaliation (the very thing Cassidy alleges was implicitly threatened) was added as a category that can be investigated by the legislative inspector general and other state inspectors general. Discrimination is another category added that will be separated out for summary reporting, along with harassment, sexual harassment, gift-ban violations, political activity claims and others. The inspector general now will be required to report how many cases in each of those categories were received, how many were opened, how many were closed, referred to law enforcement authorities and more.

• No longer will the four legislative leaders pick their inspector general, or not pick one, as was the case for three years when the office was left vacant. Now, an acting legislative inspector general must be named in 45 days, and the leaders must appoint four former judges or former prosecutors to a search committee within a set time. That committee will vet candidates and recommend three finalists to the commission for further consideration.

Lawmakers still need to wrangle out a way to provide more specific information about the claims made, investigated and resolved, while also protecting the privacy of the accused and the whistleblower, as necessary.

Our elected officials need to show citizens the legislative inspector general is fully independent and empowered. They need to add public members to the ethics commission to create one the public truly can trust.

State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, a commission member who helped drive the fight for improvements, said, “I’m hopeful there was enough demonstration by rank-and-file members that there is momentum. This is just the beginning of the cleanup of a process that’s in desperate need of continued refinement.”

As state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat who sponsored the bill and who chairs a sexual harassment task force, put it, “We just really want to deliver a message that we’re going to keep going forward until we see a culture change.”

An ethics culture change, for the better, was begun. Now keep moving forward.

Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director for the Better Government Association.

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