Time for an Ethics Overhaul
The state’s Legislative Ethics Commission can’t and won’t combat corruption, say longtime Springfield observers
What role is the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEG) supposed to be playing in Springfield? And if it is indeed broken, what better guardrails could be put in place to hold public officials to account?
Former Illinois Legislative Inspector General (LIG) Julie Porter last year described her office, which is effectively hamstrung by the LEC, as “broken.” The commission, comprised entirely of lawmakers, has inherent conflicts of interest, she wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed. While testifying before the Illinois Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform this year, she said the Commission refused to publish one of her reports detailing wrongdoing by a lawmaker.
‘Fox Guarding the Henhouse’
The LEC was created in 2003 with the aim of preventing corruption among members of the General Assembly (both current and former) and state employees (again, current and former). The Commission is charged with appointing the LIG and publishing reports of wrongdoing written by that person. Its eight members (four from each party) can also hold hearings, issue subpoenas and make rulings relative to matters investigated by the LIG, among other things. It can only consider allegations of misconduct that have been investigated by the LIG.
There’s a significant caveat to the LIG’s powers, however. As the Center for Illinois Politics noted last December, the inspector general can neither initiate an investigation without the Commission’s express approval nor issue subpoenas or publish summary reports on investigations without the same. In other words, the LEC can essentially block any investigation it doesn’t like from seeing the light of day.
And that is what happens, Porter testified. Having a LIG is a “waste of resources,” she said, if the LEC presiding over investigations is staffed entirely by legislators who have the power to kill them. “That is precisely the system we have now in Illinois: the fox is guarding the henhouse,” Porter said.
A Center for Illinois Politics review found that since 2004, when the LEC and LIG began functioning, the LEC has published nine “founded reports”—basically, summaries of any LIG investigation that finds evidence of wrongdoing. It is required to publish such reports when an investigation’s subject has been either terminated or suspended from work for at least three days. But the Commission can vote against publishing other reports the LIG produces and submits if that is not the case.
In her testimony earlier this year, Porter noted that the Commission blocked one of her summary reports during her tenure from 2017 to 2019. A second summary report she wrote just before leaving her office also never saw publication, apparently because her successor (current LIG Carol Pope) deemed it futile to pursue the matter with Commission, Porter testified. She also said that another investigation involving “serious wrongdoing” by a sitting legislator, which she asked the Illinois Attorney General to bring before the LEC in a formal complaint, went nowhere. We have no way of knowing the nature of these cases, since Porter cannot divulge details due to confidentiality rules.
What we do know is that the LIG has opened hundreds of investigations since 2004. A review of all quarterly “LEC activity reports” since that year shows at least 218 investigations initiated by the Inspector General, and 230 reported as concluded. The current LIG, Carol Pope, said via email last month that the discrepancy in these figures “may just be the result of human error over the 16 years the office has existed.” (A year-by-year breakdown of data can be found here.)
Since 2004, the LIG referred just six cases to the LEC for adjudication. But that doesn’t mean the other 225 investigations went nowhere. The LIG only refers cases to the LEC when the Commission has jurisdiction over the subject of an investigation—such as a member of the legislature who violates the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act. Many cases are sent directly to an “ultimate jurisdictional authority,” such as an agency head or legislative leader, who then chooses what action to take. For example, earlier this year the LIG found that an employee of State Sen. Emil Jones III engaged in prohibited political activity on state time. LIG Pope sent the case to Senate President Don Harmon, not the LEC.
Exactly how many cases involving wrongdoing have been buried by the Commission over the years may be unknowable. What we do know is that in recent years—according to Porter—the LEC has wielded its power in a way that “renders the Legislative Inspector General position almost entirely pointless.”
Better Ways Forward
Last fall, as a wide-ranging federal corruption probe grabbed headlines, the Legislature created the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform to figure out how to clean up Springfield. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Joint Commission missed a March 31st deadline for offering recommendations. Late last month, the group’s co-chairs said its report will be released in “the coming weeks,” although it doesn’t seem to have met since March.
Landing on solid ideas for reining in corruption shouldn’t be hard—political scientists and other Illinois politics experts have plenty of specific ideas for amending current ethics legislation.
Chris Mooney, a professor of state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that self-regulation is inherently problematic. “Complete independence from any legislator influence is needed” if lawmakers are to be held accountable, he says.
Porter offered her ideas for reforms directly to the Joint Commission in her testimony. They included:
- Staffing the LEC with people not beholden to legislative leaders—meaning non-legislators.
- Remove the LEC’s unilateral ability to deem a complaint advanced by the LIG “insufficient,” thereby avoiding political embarrassment.
- Give the LIG sole power to open an investigation, issue subpoenas and publish summary reports of wrongdoing—i.e., end the LEC’s ability to block reports from becoming public. (House Bill 4558, introduced in February, proposes these reforms.)
She also noted that no other inspector general in Illinois is subject to powers such as the LEC’s.
Mike Lawrence, retired director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, says the Commission could be eliminated and replaced with a more independent LIG. That person could be chosen by a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to ensure bipartisan support, and be “empowered to pursue investigations without gaining the approval of the legislative leaders or any entity.” The appointee could serve only one six-year term. “There must be more transparency than under the current system,” Lawrence says.
Kent D. Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, believes that combating “widespread corruption at all levels of government in Illinois” will require broad efforts to change a culture and political system that “attract corrupt people and corrupt good people.” Efforts to increase transparency are important, he says: Laws should be changed to prohibit obvious conflicts of interest between elected officials and require officials to detail all their financial interests, for starters.
But much of the problem stems from “the fundamental dynamic of the Illinois political system,” Redfield adds. The legislative process currently “concentrates power in the hands of the legislative leaders,” who control staff resources, policy information and campaign funding. All of this makes weak members of the legislature dependent on leaders, he says.
“Would empowering rank and file legislators make the legislature or Illinois politics more ethical? It might,” Redfield says. “It is certainly worth a try.”
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