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Weakened state: Problems plague Illinois’ watchdogs

Former downstate lawmaker Frank Mautino (right), now Illinois' auditor general, faces questions about his use of campaign funds. Sun-Times file photo by Brian Jackson.

Watchdogs can’t watch everything.

So while the Better Government Association and many other anti-corruption crusaders were pushing earlier this year for an inspector general with sharp teeth and a loud bark to shine a light on Chicago’s City Council and hold aldermen accountable, another watchdog crisis was unfolding under the radar in state government.

We’re talking about Illinois’ Auditor General, Legislative Inspector General and Executive Inspector General — three important watchdogs that are troubled enough to need watching themselves.

OPINION

That includes:

♦ Auditor General Frank Mautino, a former Downstate lawmaker who was part of the House leadership team but hit the ground stumbling within minutes of his January appointment when news stories raised troubling questions about his use of campaign funds.

Specifically, loan repayments to a local bank well above the amount borrowed; lavish spending on meals, travel, car repairs and gasoline; and political fundraising even after he was confirmed as auditor general.

In all, an inauspicious start for someone who monitors the efficacy and efficiency of state agencies, and especially disappointing after his predecessor, William Holland, built a reputation for integrity and nonpartisan professionalism over several decades.

Election officials are investigating Mautino’s campaign accounts, and their findings could determine whether the General Assembly reconsiders his appointment.

♦ Legislative Inspector General is the title, but no one’s held the position since December 2014, when Springfield attorney Bill Roberts, a former federal prosecutor and legal counsel to then-Gov. Jim Edgar, resigned after six months on the job.

Roberts stepped down after a BGA investigation revealed his law firm, Hinshaw & Culbertson, received more than $40,000 from political committees controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan for legal work between 2002 and 2008.

Roberts’ firm also made political contributions to key lawmakers, prompting conflict of interest questions that hastened his departure and leaving the General Assembly without a watchdog for more than a year.

The lingering vacancy is disturbing, and so is the attitude of Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, chairman of the Legislative Ethics Commission, who refused to discuss the delay or tell us how the search for Roberts’ replacement is going.

♦ The Executive Inspector General is Maggie Hickey, a former assistant U.S. Attorney appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner last year to replace Ricardo Meza, who held the job for five years before resigning.

Hickey’s office, which monitors the executive branch of state government and Chicago-area transit agencies, has the power to issue subpoenas and initiate investigations, but can’t making most of its findings public without permission, so it’s hard to measure its effectiveness.

Legislation’s been introduced to make the Executive IG more transparent, but not surprisingly, the proposal hasn’t gone anywhere.

So where does this leave us? With three enfeebled state watchdog offices — one troubled, another unoccupied, a third hamstrung — depriving Illinois taxpayers of the crucial oversight essential for honest, efficient, open government.

The governor and General Assembly may be mired in a protracted budget stalemate fueled by hyperpartisan differences, but there’s no reason they can’t focus on reforming and improving important state watchdog functions.

That simply requires leadership in the pursuit of better government, not ideological contortions.

Chicago aldermen almost got it right with their City Council IG ordinance a couple months ago — it’s imperfect but vastly improved oversight — so there’s no reason their counterparts in Springfield can’t do as well with their watchdog challenges.

We’ll be watching them closely from now on and barking loudly until they get it right.

Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga