If Springfield is serious about standing against corruption, it can take two important steps in that direction right now:
It can release a hidden report that reportedly indicates serious wrongdoing by a legislator. And it can do away with a shameful system that allows lawmakers to cover up ethics complaints.
Call it reform in real time.
On Thursday, former Acting Inspector General Julie Porter, who left the job in February 2019, told the Illinois Joint Commission on Ethics that the Legislative Ethics Commission quashed a report she wrote that uncovered alleged misdeeds by a lawmaker.
We still don’t know what — or who — is in that report.
Let’s unpack that here.
The whole point of having an independent legislative inspector general is to look into complaints of wrongdoing, no matter who the alleged culprit is. The IG is supposed to be an objective official to whom anyone can take a complaint about lawmakers who engage in transgressions.
That’s an excellent way to keep corruption from becoming entrenched.
But as things work now, the inspector general is required to take completed reports to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is made up of state senators and representatives appointed by the Legislature’s leadership. And this commission, though it is completely saturated in politics, can deep-six any report on a whim.
How’s that for independent oversight?
The commission also can pull the plug on opening an investigation and issuing subpoenas.
It’s all about protecting pals and insiders who have been up to no good.
“It is entirely backward,” David Melton, executive director of Reform for Illinois, told us. “Legislators don’t want this office to do its job, and that defeats the whole purpose of having an oversight agency.”
What good is an investigation if the powers-that-be can bury the findings at will? The commission, in such instances, is nothing more than a government censor, hiding information from the public because it is politically embarrassing.
When state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Palatine, says this is like the fox watching the hen house, he’s got it just right. The commission must be restructured, adding members who are not lawmakers beholden to the legislative leaders.
“I think it is a big scandal,” said McSweeney, who has introduced legislation that would require legislative IG reports to be made public. “We have a sitting member who is accused of wrongdoing, and voters don’t know who it is. It is a coverup.”
While they’re at it, the Legislature should give the inspector general the ability to open investigations and issue subpoenas without first having to get permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission.
Moreover, as the laws are written, the IG has a much broader authority to investigate various types of transgressions than the commission has the authority to do anything about. The commission is restricted to acting on such misconduct as doing political work on state time, promising something of value in exchange for a political contribution, accepting certain positions after state employments ends, sexual harassment and similar violations.
That leaves a world of mischief that the IG might uncover but for which the commission can’t impose penalties, such as fines.
So for example, if the IG gets a tip that a legislator is working for a company that’s going to get a huge financial windfall as a result of a bill the legislator is pushing, the inspector general can check it out and write up a report. But there is no way for the commission to impose a punishment.
And, of course, if the commission isn’t pleased, the report will never see the light of day.
That makes zero sense. The Legislature should give the IG free rein to investigate and make the results known as warranted, even with respect to misdeeds that are not under the purview of the commission.
“Any changes they make to increase transparency and enhance the independence of the inspector general will be a huge win for the people for Illinois,” Porter said.
When it comes to integrity in politics, Illinois could use a little winning.
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