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Inspectors: Lawmakers’ watchdog too weak to matter

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WREX) — The official in charge of uncovering misconduct in the Illinois General Assembly says the job should allow her confidentiality and be free of interference from lawmakers.

The Illinois Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform discussed ideas to change the current State Officials and Employees Ethics Act during another hearing spanning over four hours Thursday.

The discussion came a week after reporting on allegations of sexual misconduct by former Representative Jack Franks.

"We cannot allow this disturbing trend to continue," said Commission Co-Chair Elgie Sims Jr. (D-Chicago). "Though we've already taken steps to improve this situation, we can and must do more on behalf of the people of this great state because they expect and deserve our very best."

"It's been very frustrating"

But there is a lawmaker not serving on the Joint Commission who feels these ideas should have been put into law several years ago. Sen. Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield) has introduced ethics reform bills every year since 2015, but they never received enough support.

"It's been very frustrating that it's taken all of this corruption, the scandals and everything we're reading in the news to actually bring this issue to light," Morrison said.

Morrison added she is glad the Governor's Office, House and Senate are working toward positive reforms, but she hopes some of her proposals will be heard and passed on to the Governor's desk.

The first panel Thursday featured Inspectors General from several executive offices (Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and Comptroller) and the Executive Ethics Commission. Each of the panelists discussed how their office categorizes complaints, even addressing situations where an Inspector General is investigating wrongdoing for something lawmakers have never put into policy.

"If we wait until something is spelled out in a policy or law to say it's wrongdoing when everybody can look at it and say it's wrongdoing, that to me is not right," explained Susan Haling, Executive Inspector General for Agencies under the Governor.

Commission members also learned the Attorney General's Office can't investigate public corruption. Legal Counsel Caitlyn McEllis says their office doesn't have primary jurisdiction over that issue. Rep. Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville) thinks that is a problem.

"It sounds like most people think that should be the jurisdiction of the Attorney General to sort of nip this in the bud before it literally becomes a federal case and yet we don't see that," Wehrli exclaimed. "The only time we see action taken is by federal authorities."

"Can't be trusted"

The commission also heard proposals from the current and former Legislative Inspectors General. Julie Porter served in that role from November 2017 - February 2019 after the position sat vacant for three years. She says the Legislative Ethics Commission can't be trusted, as some of her most important investigations "didn't see the light of day."

Porter told the Chicago Sun-Times that legislators on the commission hid an investigation into another sitting lawmaker from the public. She says they should have never had the ability to kill investigations of "serious wrongdoing."

"It's something that I concluded was in the jurisdiction of the Legislative Inspector General and I used the time and resources to investigate and took [it] seriously enough to determine wrongdoing had occurred," Porter added. "I wrote a founded summary report."

Suggestions for change

Porter says the current conflict of interest laws for public officials are too weak. Current Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope agrees. Pope suggests members should be required to publicly disclose their conflicts before voting. She says any failure to disclose should be considered an ethical violation, subject to investigation and publication.

Under current law, the Legislative Inspector General (LIG) is required to ask permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC) to open any investigation. The LIG also has the duty to issue subpoenas for investigations, but they can only do so with approval of the commission.

Along the lines of publication of reports, Porter says there are many structural defects that need to be corrected in order to have a "true" independent LIG. Currently, only founded summary reports resulting suspension of at least three days or termination of employment are mandated to be published.

"The Legislative Inspector General should have the ability to publish founded reports. That means an investigation has been conducted and that the Inspector General has found something wrong. It doesn't mean it's the end of the world. It doesn't mean that it's the crime of the century, but it means it is something the public should know about and discuss," explained Porter.

All of the Legislative Inspectors General agreed a citizen should be added to the LEC, as eight lawmakers cannot make decisions about their colleagues without bias. Pope added this could provide transparency and enhance the public's view of the ethics commission.

"I hope that we can address all the points. I hope we can do it in a bipartisan way," said House Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago). "I hope we can get it to the Governor's desk and at least take a giant first step to fixing a lot of these problems."

The Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform still has several meetings left before their recommendations for the General Assembly are due on March 31.

Mike Miletich

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