State government watchdogs remain far too tame

State government watchdogs remain far too tame

Illinoisans shouldn’t have to wait for yet another humiliating scandal to fix what’s wrong here: Politicians should have no place in policing their own oversight.

The #MeToo movement is bringing about needed scrutiny of state government’s self-policing in Illinois. A couple changes have even been signed into law. But there is much more to be done.

In fact, recent reforms highlight remaining absurdities under the dome.

Recall the current controversy really kicked into gear last year, when reporter Rae Hodge blew the cover off the phantom office of the legislative inspector general, or LIG, which is charged with overseeing the General Assembly. Legislative leaders didn’t fill the post for three years, even as allegations of wrongdoing stacked up.

But here’s the catch: no one can provide effective oversight from the LIG office, even when staffed. It’s built to fail.

The LIG is essentially an arm of the Legislative Ethics Commission. To launch an investigation into the conduct of a state lawmaker, the LIG must receive the blessing of this commission, which is controlled by eight state lawmakers: half from the Senate, half from the House, half Republican, half Democratic.

If the commission is split, the complaint is not investigated¬ – and then it is buried. No one will ever know, and the public has no way of holding commission members accountable for what they choose not to investigate. So you can imagine what happens if there is ever a complaint about a prominent member of one party.

A case in point might be state Rep. Lou Lang, who resigned from his leadership posts following allegations of sexual harassment, which he denied. The Skokie Democrat used to be the chairman of the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Partisan balance might protect against partisan witch-hunts. But it also encourages a kind of slimy armistice, where no one is held accountable for fear of revenge from the other side. Everyone has dirt on everyone else, so the dirt stays buried.

Due mostly to barriers imposed by state law, the LIG lacks transparency, independence and teeth. Those criticisms aren’t new. A 2011 report authored by the Chicago-based Business and Professional People for the Public Interest provided a detailed analysis of why the LIG cannot provide effective oversight of lawmakers or legislative staff members.

Little has changed in the seven years since. But what about in the wake of the most recent Springfield scandals?

On June 8, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law House Bill 138, which garnered unanimous, bipartisan support. Among other changes, it establishes that the LIG doesn’t need approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission to investigate claims of sexual harassment.

In his signing statement, Rauner rightly railed against the inadequacies that remain. Namely, why stop at sexual harassment? If those investigations deserve independence, why not investigations into, say, bribery?

“I urge the General Assembly to … create an independent investigatory power for all ethics violations, as already exists for the executive branch and all constitutional officers,” his statement read.

Beyond the LIG, the picture isn’t much prettier when it comes to state government oversight.

Illinois’ auditor general can’t even keep his own books clean.

The Illinois Supreme Court last month ordered the Illinois State Board of Elections to revisit their non-judgment regarding nearly $500,000 in highly questionable campaign spending by Auditor General Frank Mautino from his time as a state representative. His office is under federal investigation for similar allegations.

And what about Illinois’ top watchdog?

With an adversarial attorney general who made a point to tackle government corruption, the culture in Springfield may have been on its way to changing years earlier. Instead, Lisa Madigan’s office has balked at pushing for long-due, material improvements, even as women continue to bring allegations of impropriety against members of her father’s inner circle.

Polling data show residents’ trust in state government is abysmally low. That breeds apathy in our democracy and might even spur some families to greener pastures.

Illinoisans shouldn’t have to wait for yet another humiliating scandal to fix what’s wrong here: Politicians should have no place in policing their own oversight.

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