State’s Top Watchdogs: They Bark, Don’t Bite
This story was published with the Illinois Times.
It’s tough being a government watchdog in one of the nation’s most politically corrupt states.
That’s the message from those who’ve run state Inspector General agencies responsible for uncovering wrongdoing at the highest levels of Illinois government and from those outside the halls of power who chart their actions, a BGA Rescuing Illinois report determined.
That frustration is giving rise to a slow but steady effort by some policymakers and lawmakers to provide state IGs with greater investigative firepower and independence. So far, it’s been a sluggish, often plodding, process.
Tale of Two IG offices
In the broadest terms, government inspector generals have two main functions: auditing financial statements in search of improprieties, and investigating allegations such as fraud, misconduct mismanagement, and ethical violations.
In the wake of corruption charges against former Gov. George Ryan, the Illinois Legislature in 2003 enacted the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, which included creation of inspectors general for the executive and legislative branches.
Powers of those offices were expanded in 2009 following the corruption indictment and subsequent impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The Office of Legislative Inspector General (OLIG) receives and investigates complaints against rules or regulations by General Assembly members and their state-hired staff employees.
Meanwhile, the Executive Inspector General’s office is responsible for the ethical activities of 170,000 people, including the governor, state employees and appointees, more than 300 state agencies, departments and boards, nine state universities and four regional transit boards.
But while they monitor the top government offices in Illinois, the Legislative and Executive inspectors general have maintained a relatively low profile for a variety of reasons, many of them the result of restrictive state law:
- Lack of transparency. It’s difficult to know how involved these offices are in corruption investigations because state law places limits on information they can release to the public about active cases.
- Lack of independence. Both inspectors general are appointed and approved by elected officials, and their offices report to separate ethics commissions, whose members are political appointees. The Executive Ethics Commission determines which investigations are made public. The Legislative Ethics Commission not only determines which cases are made public, but decides which cases the inspector general should investigate, and to whom subpoenas should be issued.
- Enforcement limitations. Neither office has direct enforcement powers or abilities to impose fines or penalties. Those actions are largely the purview of the offices’ respective ethics commissions and subject to potential political influence. In the case of the Legislative Inspector General office, if it uncovers a misdeed that is not criminal, there are no fines, censure or penalties for the lawmaker.
- Financial uncertainty. The budgets of both offices are determined during the state’s annual appropriation process, meaning their effectiveness can be jeopardized by funding cuts, perhaps even the result of political retribution.
“In terms of structure, both offices are ripe for reform…They need to put more teeth into those offices,” said attorney Alexander Polikoff, senior staff counsel at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a Chicago-based public interest law and policy center.
Polikoff authored a 2011 study of five separate inspectors general agencies in Illinois, including the Executive and Legislative offices.
Critics: It’s not enough
The report for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest cited the transparency, independence and enforcement limitations of the two offices, and was particularly concerned that the Legislative Inspector General can’t even launch an investigation without approval of an ethics commission comprised of elected lawmakers.
Five years later, he’s discouraged that nothing has changed.
“The Legislative (IG) doesn’t seem to be in a position to rock the boat. How many times has the Legislative one proposed an investigation and was turned down? There’s no answer to that because it’s not public,” Polikoff said.
In addition to structural problems, there has been criticism about the IG’S leadership.
Consider Thomas J. Homer, the first Legislative Inspector General, who held the post for a decade.
The Legislature chose Homer because he was a respected Downstate state’s attorney and judge. As a Democratic state representative, he received campaign contributions from House Speaker Michael Madigan and others, according to a Better Government Association investigation.
Yet over the past 12 years, the Legislative Inspector General’s office has mainly observed various scandals, not cracked down on abuses, critics contend.
The nefarious list includes fallout from a 2009 expose by the Chicago Tribune that uncovered examples of influential state lawmakers using their clout to give academically questionable students admission to the University of Illinois.
Then-Gov. Pat Quinn appointed an independent investigative panel to probe the scandal and recommend reforms. The controversy eventually led to the resignation of the university president and a tightening of admissions standards.
Metra and Madigan
And there was the 2013 brouhaha about Metra, the public transit agency, which spawned allegations that Speaker Madigan had inappropriately meddled in agency hiring and compensation decisions on behalf of his political backers.
Madigan requested that Homer’s office investigate the case, and the IG eventually decided that there was no wrongdoing on the part of Madigan.
The Madigan investigation was leaked to the media. However, during Homer’s 10-year tenure, his office made just four investigations public with none approaching the magnitude of the Madigan-Metra situation.
Several attempts to reach Homer for comment were unsuccessful.
But Homer has said there’s need for improvement in his former office. In a letter he wrote in April 2014 upon his retirement, he called on the General Assembly to provide the office the “resources and tools to do the job effectively.”
In July 2014, J. William Roberts, a former U.S. Attorney and legal counsel to former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar replaced Homer.
That appointment proved short-lived.
A BGA investigation found that Roberts’ law firm, Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, was paid more than $40,000 from 2002 to 2008 from political committees controlled by Madigan.
Further, Roberts represented Madigan part of that time as federal authorities probed whether the House Speaker misused state resources.
The BGA investigation also found that Hinshaw & Culbertson made campaign contributions to Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne (D-East St. Louis) and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), among others.
State agencies paid Hinshaw & Culbertson nearly $1.9 million for legal work over a five-year period.
Roberts declined to comment for this article.
Leg IG post unfilled
Roberts resigned after less than six months in office. The Legislative Inspector General position has been vacant since December 2014.
Rep. Louis Lang (D-Skokie), chairman of the Legislative Ethics Commission, declined to comment on where the commission stands in nominating a new inspector general for approval by the Illinois Legislature.
The seven other lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission either declined comment or could not be reached, despite repeated attempts.
The consolation prize in this year-long vacancy is that the OLIG office has spent less money. The office’s annual budget is $312,500, mainly to fund the salary of the OLIG and an administrative assistant. But because there is no OLIG, the office spent only $100,000 last year.
“The Legislative Inspector General’s office strikes me as much too opaque,” said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “There’s too much secrecy. We don’t have a sense of what’s being done.”
In July, Gov. Bruce Rauner named Maggie Hickey, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, as Executive Inspector General (EIG). Hickey replaced Ricardo Meza, who held that job for five years before resigning in April to go into private practice.
Meza also came under fire from critics in July 2014 for what they considered an apparent lack of action in investigating allegations of widespread patronage hiring in the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Famed anti-patronage attorney Michael Shakman went to federal court asking for an independent monitor to oversee IDOT hiring and taking a swipe at Meza.
“If he were doing his job, we wouldn’t be here today. Or, it could be that he’s so hamstrung, he can’t do his job. I’m not sure,” Shakman said in court.
However, in August 2014, the Chicago Tribune obtained a copy of a confidential report showing that Meza had been investigating the case all along.
The inspector general’s conclusion was that IDOT senior administrators were involved in widespread patronage hiring by creating some 255 “staff assistant” positions that would circumvent the findings of the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits government agencies from hiring people based on their political affiliation.
Shakman’s IG decree
Shakman acknowledged the inspector general’s work in an October 2014 court filing asking the court to appoint an independent monitor to supervise IDOT’s hiring practices. His filing criticized the inspector general for the narrow focus of its investigation, failing to cite the role played by the governor’s office:
“The IG’s Report confirms all the previously reported illegal conduct at IDOT and adds details. But it does not deal adequately with the causes of the illegal practices or suggest long-term solutions. The IG’s focus was IDOT. The IG did not do an adequate job of investigating the role played by the Office of the Governor… The IG is not a meaningful substitute for a monitor reporting on compliance with court orders,” Shakman wrote.
“In addition, I think my record and work as EIG speaks for itself.”
In an April 2015 on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, Meza described the frustrations of how the inspector general’s office can sometimes be viewed as ineffective because it’s limited in releasing details of pending cases.
“What’s unfortunate is that sometimes people believe that our office is not engaging in certain types of investigations, but in fact, as it turns out later, as what happened with the IDOT investigation, the judge…commended our work in that case,” Meza said on Chicago Tonight.
“Every year I’ve been in office, we have tried to introduce legislation to increase the number of founded reports, where we’ve found misconduct, to be made public,” he also said.
Executive IG’s plan
Eight months into her new job as Meza’s replacement, Hickey also would like to see greater transparency in the Executive Inspector General’s office.
“We have subpoena power, we can self-initiate an investigation, but we can’t self publish,” Hickey said in an interview.
Legislation was introduced this year by State Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates) and State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) that would allow the Executive Inspector General to release reports of its investigations without the approval of the Executive Ethics Commission.
They also presented a bill that would allow the Executive Inspector General to disclose files and reports to the head of an agency under investigation. Both bills remain in committee.
Meanwhile, Hickey plans to take some proactive steps of her own to improve the office’s effectiveness and to try heading off ethical problems before they arise.
The Executive Inspector General office is responsible for ethics training for state employees, appointees and officials. Last year, it trained 175,000 people and plans to expand on that effort.
Despite the workload, the EIG office spent less money last year. The office was allocated a total budget of $7.4 million, but spent only $6.3 million, mainly due to staff attrition, according to the office’s annual report.
Hickey also recently created a new Division of Hiring and Employment Monitoring which will be involved in the hiring of state employees.
The division will review hiring procedures, sit in on interviews and other duties to reduce the possibility of patronage hiring.
“The idea is not just to be reactive when something wrong has happened, but to be proactive. I’m looking for ways to be on the ground with these agencies,” Hickey said.
Last month, Rauner signed an executive order allowing state agencies to conduct internal investigations alongside the executive IG. Previously, an investigation was suspended once it was referred to the executive IG. Rauner says the change will allow agencies and the IG to work together addressing complaints or alleged ethics law violations.
As for the Legislative Inspector General, silence on the part of the Legislative Ethics Commission offers no indication of when the vacant post will be filled, much less any proposals to strengthen the office.
Sen. Steans, who co-sponsored bills to make the Executive Inspector general’s office more transparent, only to see that legislation stalled in the General Assembly, said she is willing to propose the same reforms for the Legislative Inspector General.
"When there are findings in a case, those findings should come out. It's something the public needs to know," Steans said. "The goal is to make these offices much more transparent."