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Church State Issues

Legislative watchdog wants ethics laws with teeth

Apr 18, 2014

Chicago Tribune

Illinois' legislative inspector general calls for ethics laws with teeth

April 18, 2014

Illinois Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer isn't allowed to explain why his investigation into last summer's Metra patronage scandal came to its unsatisfying — and totally predictable — conclusion.

But it was easy to read between the lines in his statement to reporters last week.

"Although I can recommend new laws to address what I believe to be inappropriate conduct by legislators, enforcement actions are limited to violations of existing laws and rules," Homer wrote, in boldfaced type. "A decision to close an investigation based on insufficient evidence does not constitute a Good Housekeeping seal of approval or a best practices award."

Homer stressed that he was talking in generalities and not about, ahem, any specific case.

Such as the just-finished probe into House Speaker Michael Madigan's attempts to get jobs, promotions and raises at Metra for his cronies. Madigan admitted to such meddling last year, after Metra's ex-CEO Alex Clifford alleged that he was ousted for pushing back against patronage moves.

But the inspector general found no violations of state law, because — let's put this in boldface too — the law is a joke. It spells out some ethical guidelines for legislators, but provides plenty of escape hatches, no meaningful sanctions and no public oversight.

All sorts of brazenly unethical behavior is perfectly legal in Illinois.

For more than half a century, lawmakers abused the legislative scholarship program, granting free tuition to state universities to their friends, business associates and even their own relatives. Madigan was among the worst offenders.

He was also at the top of the list of politicians caught clouting their campaign donors, clients and other pals onto the secret special admissions track at the University of Illinois.

More than 400 current or retired government workers throughout the state have close political ties to the speaker, the Tribune reported in January.

A mass transit task force named in the aftermath of the Metra scandal found evidence that Madigan was planting his pals in jobs at the commuter rail as early as 1983. So were dozens of politicians at every level of government.

Ethics laws? What ethics laws?

After 10 years of working with his hands tied, Homer will retire this summer. This week, he made good on his promise to suggest much-needed reforms. His letter to all 177 members of the General Assembly contains six pages of recommendations, most of them "inspired by actual cases that I have investigated."

Among the highlights:

All state agencies and universities should be required to report contacts made by lawmakers seeking to influence personnel or admissions decisions. (Metra and the University of Illinois enacted such policies following their respective scandals.)

The General Assembly should adopt rules governing members' intervention on behalf of constituents. Some underlying principles: Lawmakers are responsible to everyone they represent, not just their cronies. Advocating for special favors or reprisals is an abuse of power. Employment recommendations should be made in writing.

Findings of legislative misconduct should be made public.

Compliance with the code of conduct contained in the state ethics act should be mandatory — that's right, it's currently voluntary — and violators should be fined and/or censured. Lawmakers should be prohibited from voting or taking action on matters involving themselves, their relatives or their clients. Potential conflicts of interest should be spelled out in annual economic statements similar to those required of judges.

The people who wrote the current laws didn't leave all of that out by accident. Clout makes their world go around. But they're clearly not on the same page as the public. Outrage over the U. of I. scandal cost the president, provost and most of the university trustees their jobs. The legislative scholarship racket became so toxic with voters that the General Assembly finally killed it. The Metra uproar led to the resignations of six board members. But lawmakers skated accountability for all of it.

That's why Homer's suggestions deserve to be embraced enthusiastically by the good apples in the legislature. For too long, the bad apples have used their positions to benefit themselves and their cronies, at the expense of everyone else.

The law says that's OK. But the public sure doesn't think so.