The Illinois legislature needs a new watchdog now

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The Illinois Capitol. | AP

Once again, the post of legislative inspector general is vacant.

The Illinois Legislative Ethics Commission needs to get its act together and appoint a new inspector general. Right now, the Legislature has no watchdog investigating corruption in its ranks.

That is not a good state of affairs.

Carol Pope, the legislative inspector general since 2019, announced in July she was leaving the job, but the commission has been unable to agree on recommending a replacement. Ordinarily, that might not necessarily raise a red flag, but before Pope, the office was unoccupied for four years. Illinois can’t afford to make a habit of letting such an important office sit empty.

We’ve seen this sorry scenario play our before, with dire results. In 2017, while no one held the job of legislative inspector general, a victims’ rights advocate testified her sexual harassment complaint against a state senator went nowhere for more than a year. More recently, no investigation has been started into a complaint filed on Dec. 23 because there is no inspector general to do it.

That is no way to handle allegations of wrongdoing.

According to Pope’s letter of resignation, her last day was Thursday. The opportunity for a seamless transition to a new inspector general has already been squandered because no date has been set for both the House and Senate to be back in session and in a position to confirm a new inspector general. The Legislature adjourned last week without discussing the matter.

According to news reports, the four Republicans on the eight-person commission want to recommend Joseph Hartzler, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped to prosecute convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The four Democrats prefer former federal prosecutor David Risley, who has the advantage of having worked as an investigator under Pope. Both Hartzler and Risley worked in the administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Any recommendation or recommendations by the commission are sent to the Legislature for a final vote.

Reportedly, Democrats on the commission think the Republicans are trying to force through their preferred candidate by ignoring other qualified applicants and forcing the Legislature to take the GOP choice. Republicans say the Democrats are trying to add their own candidate to the list of recommendations because they know the Democratic majorities in the Legislature will have the final say.

It’s unfortunate the recommendation process has not been completed in a transparent and bipartisan fashion.

Impartial, zealous and cautious

Picking an inspector general requires thoughtful consideration. A candidate must not only be impartial but also should be both zealous about investigating ethical violations and be cautious about unfairly going after people because of ordinary mistakes. Former Executive Inspector General James Wright, for example, was accused of the latter when he urged then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan to file a complaint against former Gov. Pat Quinn’s chief of staff, Jerry Stermer, after Stermer reported he accidentally responded to three non-government messages on his state cell phone instead of his personal one.

Last spring, the Legislature passed a bipartisan ethics reform measure that gave the inspector general authority to issue subpoenas, a long-sought reform. But the IG still must get the commission’s permission to issue those subpoenas and to make public reports on lawmakers who engaged in misconduct. That didn’t sit well with Pope, a former prosecutor and appellate court judge, who called for more independence, as did her two predecessors. Even after last year’s reforms, she said the office remains a “paper tiger.”

State Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, has introduced a bill with additional proposals, including barring elected officials from sitting on the commission, giving the legislative inspector general’s office independent subpoena power and broadening access to commission minutes for journalists and the public, ideas that were floated in 2020 before the Joint Committee on Ethics and Lobbying.

But even if more reforms are put into place, they won’t make much of a difference if there is no qualified, fair-minded inspector general to investigate legislative corruption.

Fill the job.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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January 9, 2022 at 02:04PM

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