Dillon: To Break the Cycle of Ethical Failure, Fix the Legislative Oversight System

In Illinois, the Legislative Inspector General answers to a panel of legislators appointed by other legislators. No wonder this doesn't work.

BGA file photo

The inspectors general hired to oversee the Illinois General Assembly have been consistently vocal about the legal and political constraints that sabotage their work. But former Legislative IG Julie Porter’s most recent protest was especially timely. 

In written testimony prepared for the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform on Feb. 6, Porter revealed that a formal complaint against a sitting lawmaker — filed by the Attorney General at Porter’s request — had been “buried” by the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Twice before, Porter had asked the LEC to publish reports detailing investigations that concluded in a finding of misconduct. Neither report was published.

Porter couldn’t share details of her investigations because of confidentiality provisions in the law. But the Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella pieced together records from the LEC’s meetings in May at which a pending complaint was considered by the eight lawmakers — four Democrats and four Republicans — who make up the commission.

A motion by Democratic Sen. Terry Link to close the case failed 4-4, the Tribune reported. That left the case open until a second meeting, at which Republican Rep. Norine Hammond moved to find that the complaint supported a violation of the ethics act. That motion also failed 4-4. That was the end of it. Porter’s finding never saw daylight.

That 4-4 deadlock is a built-in obstacle to legislative accountability. The law says commission members — party leaders in the House and Senate each appoint two —  can be lawmakers or members of the public. But the appointees invariably are all lawmakers, four Democrats and four Republicans. Instead of policing misconduct, the members seem to view their job as playing defense.

Former LIG Tom Homer, who testified alongside Porter and current LIG Carol Pope, said legislative leaders historically “have put their surrogates on there to protect the interests of the caucus.” All three IGs confirmed that they had sometimes asked the commission to publish reports of wrongdoing and had been denied by 4-4 votes.

Homer said lawmakers should consider adding a ninth “tie-breaker” member, appointed from the public. He also suggested that instead of requiring a majority vote to publish a founded report, the law should require a majority in order to decline publication. 

Those are both good ideas, but the real solution is to revamp the whole oversight system.

Under current law, the Legislative Inspector General can barely cross the street without permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission. The IG can’t open or expand an investigation, issue a subpoena or publish findings of an investigation without approval from those eight conflicted lawmakers. It’s also up to the commission to decide whether to investigate a complaint of serious wrongdoing filed by the Attorney General on the IG’s behalf.

Better oversight models can be found across the country (or over in the Illinois executive branch, where inspectors general aren’t restrained like their legislative counterparts). Publishing reports of misconduct is the default in most states; Florida even publishes reports of investigations that conclude no wrongdoing occurred. Several states have ethics commissions made up of both lawmakers and non-lawmakers, and a few commissions have no lawmakers at all.

Pope, who has been LIG since March 2018, said asking permission from a panel of legislators doesn’t just undermine her independence; it compromises the confidentiality of her investigations. Last year, she made her case in a letter to the LEC and again to legislative leaders, asking them to make changes in the veto session. 

Homer, who served from 2004 to 2014, called repeatedly for changes to make the office more independent and transparent. 

Their entreaties have inspired countless bills meant to empower the IG, but none has advanced. 

I’m not the first to suggest that finally fixing the dysfunctional oversight system will be the true test of whether the General Assembly is serious about strengthening Illinois’ ethics laws. But as Homer observed, history doesn’t bode well. The state’s recurring ethical crises present opportunities for reform, but “once that window closes, things just grind on,” he said.

“I came here hoping this time would be different.” 

This column was published in the State Journal-Register.