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Former legislative inspector general: ‘A powerless role,’ system ‘broken’

Then-Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter appears on WTTW-TV's "Chicago Tonight" in 2017. Screen Image.

The veteran federal prosecutor tasked with cleaning up a muddied system of investigating ethical complaints against lawmakers says that the system is “broken” — and warns that a complaint against a lawmaker wasn’t made public.

In a Chicago Tribune op-ed published online Tuesday, former Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter also writes that she doesn’t believe the Legislative Ethics Commission should be made up of lawmakers, whom she accused of having “inherent conflicts of interest in serving on the commission.”

“The LIG [Legislative Inspector General] is supposed to be an independent, objective official to whom anyone can go to lodge a complaint about unethical or wrongful conduct by members of the Illinois General Assembly,” Porter writes. “But the legislative inspector general is not independent. Unless and until the legislature changes the structure and rules governing the LIG, it is a powerless role, and no LIG — no matter how qualified, hardworking and persistent — can effectively serve the public.”

One of Porter’s major complaints is that she could not publish her summary reports of allegations she concluded were founded without the commission’s permission. She said one such report revealed a legislator “engaged in unethical or wrongful conduct,” but the commission chose not to publish it. In another case she investigated, Porter said the new legislative inspector general closed it, even though Porter ruled the allegations founded.

“For members of the General Assembly, there is no punishment that an LIG can recommend,” Porter wrote. “The only way to hold a legislator accountable in Illinois — and to promote discussion and change — is for the LIG to be able to publish her findings.”

Carol Marin, left, interviews then-Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter on WTTW-TV’s “Chicago Tonight” in 2017.
Carol Marin, left, interviews then-Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter on WTTW-TV’s “Chicago Tonight” in 2017. Screen Image.
WTTW screen image

State Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Raymond, the chairwoman of the Legislative Ethics Commission, said it’s up to the legislative leaders whether or not the commission should be comprised of lawmakers.

“The leaders are able to pick members of the public,” Bourne said. “I think it’s at the discretion of the leaders of what they think is appropriate.”

Bourne said the commission voted unanimously in February not to publish one case with allegations deemed founded. The state’s new legislative inspector general, Carol Pope, chose to close another case, as Porter wrote. Bourne, said legislation passed last year ensures that the inspector general does not have to ask the commission for permission to investigate a sexual harassment allegation.

As for the accusation about potential conflicts of interest with lawmakers serving on the commission, Bourne said any commission members accused in reports would have to recuse themselves.

“I think that’s a good move towards making sure that we’re avoiding these appearances of conflicts of interest,” Bourne said. “The members of the commission, we see our role as taking each case on the facts, and often times we don’t know who they’re involving.”

Bourne said the commission believed Porter had done “really great work.” She said she didn’t know Porter would be writing the op-ed.

Months after whistleblowers unveiled a #MeToo problem in Springfield, the legislative ethics commission in December named Pope, a former prosecutor and appellate court judge to the post of permanent legislative inspector general — the first time the spot had been permanently filled since June 2014.

That’s when former appellate court justice Tom Homer stepped down after serving a decade in that role.

That left a giant backlog. Between December 2014 and Nov. 3, 2017, the legislative inspector general’s office had received 27 written requests for investigation.

Porter, who was appointed as a temporary inspector general in Nov. 2017, handled some high-profile cases — including accusations lobbed against former state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. Porter concluded that Silverstein did not engage in sexual harassment “or other unlawful conduct,” but “he did behave in a manner unbecoming a legislator in violation of the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act.” Porter cleared Lang of harassment allegations — ruling there’s not enough evidence to prove such harassment occurred, in part because the woman who accused him would not be interviewed for the investigation.

Then-Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, (left). (AP File Photo/Seth Perlman, File); Denise Rotheimer, right, his accuser, testifies before an Illinois House committee in Chicago. (File Photo by Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times).
Then-Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, (left). (AP File Photo/Seth Perlman, File); Denise Rotheimer, right, his accuser, testifies before an Illinois House committee in Chicago. (File Photo by Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times).

Since February 2018, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan — who also serves as the chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party — has forced out aide Kevin Quinn and Tim Mapes, his chief of staff and executive director of the state’s Democratic party, over harassment allegations. Madigan, too, forced Lang’s hand in resigning from his leadership positions.