Illinoisans have only to look to the disturbingly long queue of former lawmakers charged with crimes or facing federal probes to know that ethics is not the Illinois General Assembly’s strong suit.
There’s former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D- Chicago, who has pleaded not guilty to federal bribery charges, and was allegedly caught on tape trying to bribe another lawmaker while boasting, “This is, this is the jackpot.” Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to corruption charges before dying of COVID-19 complications last December. Or how about the cadre of allies of former House Speaker Michael Madigan — including his former chief of staff, Tim Mapes — whose alleged misconduct led to federal charges filed against them amid the ongoing ComEd corruption scandal? Mapes has also pleaded not guilty.
There are others, far too many more.
In theory, a bulwark against wrongdoing by lawmakers should be the Office of Illinois Legislative Inspector General, created in 2003 by the General Assembly. In practice, lawmakers have ensured that whoever holds that post has all the clout of, as current Legislative IG says, “a paper tiger.”
“I thought I could be useful in improving the public’s view of the legislature and help bring about true ethics reform,” she wrote last week to members of the Legislative Ethics Commission, which oversees her post. “Unfortunately, I have not been able to do so. This last legislative session demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority. The LIG has no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations.”
People are also reading…
Pope’s remarks came in the form of a resignation letter, and it comes as no surprise. Her predecessors, Julie Porter and Thomas Homer, expressed the same exasperation with Springfield’s Potemkin approach to ethics reform.
Porter, who quit in 2019, wrote in an op-ed that year that the office of legislative inspector general is “broken. The LIG 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. 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.”
Lawmakers had their chance to beef up the authority of the legislative inspector general, using ideas backed by Pope, Porter and even Homer back in 2014. Those ideas reflect the need to uncouple the post from the hamstringing oversight of the ethics commission, which in fox-runs-the-hen-house fashion, is made up of state lawmakers — the same legislators that the LIG is supposed to police.
What would real reform look like? Give the legislative inspector general the power to issue subpoenas and release reports on lawmakers without the ethics commission’s go-ahead. Broaden the scope of the inspector general’s mission to include alleged wrongdoing outside of lawmakers’ public duties. Expand the ethics commission by adding nonpartisan citizen representation, so that the 4-4 partisan deadlock that thwarts investigations can be broken.
None of these recommendations were included in the weak ethics bill that state lawmakers passed this past spring. The legislation now awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s approval, and instead of signing it he should send it back with a demand to fortify the post with far stronger powers so that it can do more than just wag a finger.
Illinoisans have little trust in how their state is run in part because corruption is a defining characteristic of governance in Springfield. Ethics is something state lawmakers pontificate about when they’re running for office, but then never put into practice once they get to the business of legislating. And as long as that’s the status quo, the pall of greed will continue to drape over state politics.
A stronger legislative inspector general’s office with the requisite teeth to change behavior in Springfield is an ideal way to begin to change that image.
Give the legislative inspector general the power to issue subpoenas and release reports on lawmakers without the ethics commission’s go-ahead.