Watchdog or ‘paper tiger’? Legislative inspector general resigns, citing lawmakers’ failure to give job teeth

Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope sent her letter of resignation to the Legislative Ethics Commission, offering to step down immediately, stay on while it finds a replacement or remain until her term ends in December.

SHARE Watchdog or ‘paper tiger’? Legislative inspector general resigns, citing lawmakers’ failure to give job teeth
Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope, left, testifies before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform in Springfield in 2020. Her predecessors, Julie Porter, center, and Tom Homer, right, also testified.

Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope, left, testifies before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform in Springfield in 2020. Her predecessors, Julie Porter, center, and Tom Homer, right, also testified.

Peter Hancock/Capitol News Illinois file photo

The latest watchdog for the Illinois state Legislature offered her resignation on Wednesday, telling lawmakers their failure to pass meaningful ethics reform shows “true ethics reform is not a priority.”

Complaining her job is “essentially a paper tiger,” Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope sent her letter of resignation to members of the Legislative Ethics Commission, offering to step down immediately, stay on while they find a replacement or remain until her term ends in December.

“When I took this job as the Legislative Inspector General, I thought I might be able to make a difference working from the inside,” Pope wrote in her resignation letter.

“I thought I could be useful in improving the public’s view of the legislature and help bring about true ethics reform. Unfortunately, I have not been able to do so. This last legislative session demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority.”

Pope went on in her two-page letter to say the legislative watchdog position has “no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations, the position is essentially a paper tiger.”

Her frustrated departure is the latest blow for an office that had no permanent occupant for more than four years when Pope was appointed in December of 2018.

Former federal prosecutor Julie Porter, who served as a temporary inspector general for about a year and half during that time, also voiced concerns in a newspaper op-ed after she left, complaining the system is “broken” and “the legislative inspector general is not independent.”

Former Acting Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter, center, testifies with successor Carol Pope, left, and predecessor Tom Homer. right, at a hearing before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform in Springfield last year.

Former Acting Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter, center, testifies with successor Carol Pope, left, and predecessor Tom Homer. right, at a hearing before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform in Springfield last year.

Peter Hancock/Capitol News Illinois file

In her resignation letter, Pope said she has testified before legislators about reforms needed to restore confidence in government.

She said she testified this spring before House and Senate ethics committees about being able to issue subpoenas without the approval of the Legislative Ethics Commission, publishing reports about investigations and creating a ninth slot on the ethics commission for a nonpartisan member who is not a state lawmaker.

“None of these reforms were adopted,” Pope wrote, arguing that her office’s power was actually restricted by requiring a complaint to be filed before she can launch an investigation.

That requirement had been removed in legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2009. For the last 12 years the legislative inspector general’s office was able to initiate an investigation based on a media report, but, under new legislation, that is “no longer” allowed, Pope wrote.

State Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, chair of the ethics commission, issued a statement, saying Pope has done an “outstanding job and we thank her for her commitment to better government.”

“It is unfortunate that the Majority legislative leaders did not make better use of her skills and her willingness to make some much-needed changes that would benefit ALL lawmakers,” Tracy said. “Ethics reform in Illinois has long been an ongoing challenge.”

Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, said in a statement Pope has “has proven to be a dedicated public servant representing the people of Illinois and their desire for a more ethical state government.

State Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, third from right, joins other Republicans at a news conference last year.

State Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, third from right, joins other Illinois House and Senate Republicans at a news conference in May.

Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

“Her job was difficult in a state that has a history of legislator misconduct,” McConchie wrote.

A steady trickle of indictments of legislators and associates of former House Speaker Mike Madigan moved ethics legislation back to the front burner in Springfield before the slated end of session in May.

Madigan has been implicated in a bribery scheme involving ComEd, but he has not been criminally charged and denies any wrongdoing.

Former House Speaker Michael Madigan walks away from reporters after a committee hearing on the Southwest Side in February.

Former House Speaker Michael Madigan walks away from reporters after a committee hearing on the Southwest Side in February.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Legislators passed ethics legislation that would set a revolving-door prohibition and made some peripheral changes to the legislative inspector general’s powers, but many lawmakers felt the legislation didn’t go far enough.

Before the bill passed in May, state Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, said she was “really disappointed with this piece of legislation.

“If we are going to show the public that they can have a renewed sense of trust in state government, we’ve got to do something a whole heck of a lot better than this watered-down, diluted — and I think, in some instances, really deceptive — ethics reform,” Bourne said.

But state Sen. Ann Gillespie, D-Highland Park, said at the time that the bill takes the first steps in “addressing some of the most egregious scandals in our state’s history.”

“We didn’t get everything we wanted ... but we got a good solid bill that addresses many of the issues that we’ve seen over the last couple of years,” Gillespie said in May.

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