Dillon: Serious About Ethics Reforms? Start Here

The General Assembly needs a fully empowered inspector general. It also needs stronger laws against legislative misconduct.

Sun-Times file photo

Way back in July, the Illinois General Assembly’s inspector general wrote a letter to legislative leaders, asking them to act during the fall veto session to give her the authority to do her job. It didn’t happen.

Throughout the session, the Capitol was consumed by talk of ethics reforms, as the plot thickened around all those federal search warrants. But not much came of it. Lawmakers hastily passed some new disclosure requirements for lobbyists, then punted to a joint House-Senate committee that will have until March 31 to propose more changes.

Strengthening that toothless watchdog should be at the top of the list. But let’s not forget that the laws governing legislative conduct are toothless, too. Watch closely: If lawmakers are serious about ethics reforms, they’ll fix both.

In that July letter, Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope reminded lawmakers that she isn’t allowed to open an investigation or issue a subpoena without permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission — a panel made up of yes, legislators. Fox, meet henhouse.

Months earlier, Pope’s predecessor, Julie Porter, wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune expressing frustration that the same panel refused to publish her recent finding of misconduct by a current lawmaker. It’s a big deal, because releasing the report — a public shaming, basically — is the only consequence available when a legislator is found to have acted unethically. See? Toothless.

Inspectors general who oversee the executive branch can launch investigations without a mother-may-I, and they report to a commission appointed from the general public. Lawmakers operate under a different model because lawmakers wrote the rules.

That almost certainly explains why there have been only three findings of misconduct against legislators in 15 years. It’s hard to chalk it up to scrupulously upright behavior, especially now that the U.S. Attorney is raiding offices, left and right, of lawmakers and their associates.

Of course there are shades of misconduct, from unethical to criminal. But Illinois laws tolerate all sorts of conflicts of interest that invite lawmakers to leverage their positions for personal gain, at the expense of taxpayers.

In 2014, Thomas Homer — the state’s first legislative IG — investigated House Speaker Michael Madigan’s decades-long habit of dictating personnel matters at the Metra commuter rail system.

Homer was forced to conclude that no laws were broken. No report was issued. In an awkward written statement to the media, he noted that his finding “does not constitute a good housekeeping seal of approval.”

“Although I can recommend new laws to address what I believe to be inappropriate conduct by legislators, enforcement actions are limited to violations of existing laws and rules,” he wrote.

Weeks later, the retiring Homer left lawmakers with six pages of proposed fixes targeting patronage, conflicts of interest, the lack of transparency and independence in IG investigations and the need for rules about when and how a lawmaker can intervene to help someone get a government job or other favors. He urged them to strengthen the legislative code of conduct — the ethics act explicitly states that the code is aspirational — and to include penalties.

Lawmakers thanked him by leaving his job vacant for almost three years.

They were shamed into filling it by a #metoo moment. An activist’s sexual harassment claim against a lawmaker had languished in a file, untouched, for nearly a year because there was no inspector general to investigate it. When word finally got out, the General Assembly quickly filled the job and passed a law prohibiting sexual harassment by lawmakers, punishable by a $5,000 fine. Good. But there are still no consequences for most other ethical breaches.

That has to change. A fully empowered inspector general is only as strong as the laws she enforces.

So yes, by all means let’s give the watchdog some teeth. But let’s give her some laws to work with, too.

This column was published in the State Journal-Register.