Illinois watchdog’s report of ‘serious misconduct’ was ‘squashed’ by panel of lawmakers

Illinois watchdog’s report of ‘serious misconduct’ was ‘squashed’ by panel of lawmakers

Illinois’ legislative inspector general investigates complaints against state lawmakers, but a commission of their peers can – and did – bury those findings, the former inspector said. A new bill would change that.

On Feb. 6, former Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter testified that her office was muzzled by a panel of state lawmakers it was tasked with overseeing.

“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,” she testified at a hearing of the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform.

For the past year, a massive federal corruption probe has exposed public corruption in the Illinois General Assembly, leading to indictments against two state senators and a representative.

Two bodies – the Legislative Ethics Commission, or LEC, and the Office of the Legislative Inspector General, or LIG – are charged with holding members of the Illinois General Assembly accountable for ethics violations. But the structure of the commission and the lack of independence given to the inspector general leave the process opaque. That makes it look like lawmakers protect their own.

In addition to refusing to publish a summary report in which she had found wrongdoing by a lawmaker, Porter said she had requested the attorney general file a formal complaint before the LEC on a different matter. However, Porter found the commission had blocked the attorney general’s complaint after she had left office. She also claimed the LEC refused to publish the summary report Porter prepared on the subject that was sent to the attorney general.

Porter decried the fact that these findings remain in the dark.

“But my report and the Attorney General’s complaint should not be secret,” Porter said. “They remain so only because the Legislative Ethics Commission squashed them so that the public could not see what the supposedly independent Inspector General determined to be wrongdoing by a sitting legislator.”

Porter’s testimony illustrates the frustration that comes with the task of investigating the legislature under the current structure. She said had she known then what she knows now, she never would have taken the job because it is a waste of time under the current statute.

But the LIG need not be handcuffed.

Fixing a broken office

The current structure of the ethics commission leaves the appointment of commissioners entirely in the hands of the legislative branch, and all of the current members of the commission are members of the General Assembly.

The LIG could provide more of an outside check on the commission, but the office is hindered by its lack of independence. Under the current process, the lawmakers on the commission can largely grant or deny permission to the LIG to open investigations, to issue subpoenas and to publish summary reports – even if the LIG finds a complaint is founded.

House Bill 4558 would transform the legislative inspector general into a truly independent watchdog.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, would give the Legislative Inspector General more independence from the Legislative Ethics Commission when investigating complaints against the legislature. It would empower the inspector general to open investigations in response to a complaint and issue subpoenas without approval from the lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission.

More importantly, it would allow the legislative inspector general’s office to make summary reports public if its investigations find wrongdoing.

Allegations of sexual harassment are already exempt from needing commission approval to open an investigation. In the wake of the sexual harassment scandal in Springfield, the General Assembly determined the LIG needed independence to show a strong response. But the same level of oversight should apply to all allegations of wrongdoing under the Capitol dome.

The Illinois Executive Inspector General, responsible for investigating the executive branch, can already initiate investigations and issue subpoenas without approval of the Executive Ethics Commission. The LIG should be entrusted with comparable authority, especially when the commission she reports to is made up of eight members of the General Assembly she is charged with investigating.

When allegations against members of the General Assembly are made, it can be difficult for the public to know whether there is any basis. And because the Inspector General has to gain the approval of lawmakers before pursuing investigations or publishing findings, the public might think members will protect their own. Given that the Legislative Ethics Commission needs five of eight members to agree to take any official action, four members on a party-line vote can block the LIG.

By granting the Legislative Inspector General more authority to act independently, members of the General Assembly can relieve some of these concerns.

The Inspector General needs the authority to open investigations in response to complaints, to issue subpoenas in the course of those investigations and to publish summary reports in the case of a finding of wrongdoing. The public will gain more faith that corruption will be exposed if and where it exists, rather than buried by politicians watching out for their buddies.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!