Illinois’ legislative watchdog resigns over inability to keep lawmakers in check

Illinois’ legislative watchdog resigns over inability to keep lawmakers in check

Criticizing the ethics reform measures recently passed by the Illinois General Assembly, the legislative inspector general called her job a “paper tiger” lacking the independence required to hold lawmakers accountable.

After just over two years as watchdog of the Illinois General Assembly, Carol Pope said July 14 she is quitting the job she described as a “paper tiger,” too weak to be effective.

She is not the first legislative inspector general to voice such concerns.

In the letter sent to members of the Legislative Ethics Commission, Pope said the inspector general “has no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations.” The failure of lawmakers to adopt most of the measures she had advocated shows “true ethics reform is not a priority.”

With Pope joining her predecessors in chafing from the restraints put on the office charged with investigating wrongdoing in the General Assembly, state lawmakers should pay attention and do more to police their ranks.

Ethics bill light on reforms to increase watchdog’s independence, effectiveness

Pope’s criticism of the restraints on her job comes after passage of an ethics reform package as Senate Bill 539. The bill passed both chambers on June 1 and was sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker on June 30 – a product of the bipartisan desire to initiate ethics reform in the wake of corruption scandals surrounding former House Speaker Mike Madigan. Pritzker has yet to sign the bill.

Pope decried the lack of reform on several issues on which she testified in 2020 and 2021. They included the need for the inspector to be able to initiate investigations and issue subpoenas without approval from state lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission, the need to publish founded summary reports on lawmakers and the need to add a nonpartisan citizen member to the commission to avoid investigations being stymied by the 4-4 partisan votes among the commission’s lawmakers. Of the areas Pope described as ripe for reform, all except the ability to independently initiate investigations were “unimproved,” according to her letter.

Pope also criticized the new requirements that an official complaint be filed before an investigation can commence and the limitation of the scope of misconduct that can be investigated as hindering her ability to fulfill the inspector’s role.

She said she would have no authority to investigate misconduct described only in media accounts or wrongdoing such as lawmakers “posting revenge porn on social media” or the “failure to pay income taxes on non-legislative income.”

Pope reiterates concerns of previous legislative inspector generals

Pope is not the only person in her position to criticize the lack of independence that her role had in ensuring the accountability of state lawmakers.

Julie Porter, the previous inspector general, testified in February 2020 before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform about how her work was suppressed by the Legislative Ethics Commission when she sought to publish her findings publicly. “Although I completed dozens of investigations without incident, in some significant matters, when I did find wrongdoing and sought to publish it, state legislators charged with serving on the Legislative Ethics Commission blocked me,” Porter wrote.

Former Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer also called for more independence and transparency when he left office in 2014, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The resignation of Pope and the laments of those who have previously served as legislative inspector general show Illinois needs to do more to hold members of the General Assembly accountable for corruption and wrongdoing. SB 539 is a first step, but the General Assembly should pass additional reforms to enhance the autonomy of the legislative inspector general.

House Bill 2774, introduced by state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, for example, would have allowed the inspector to open investigations into complaints without the approval of lawmakers. It also would have authorized the inspector to issue subpoenas on her own initiative and to publish founded summary reports without depending on permission from the commission.

Pope’s resignation is an indication that the work toward a more transparent Illinois state government is incomplete.

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