Illinois top legislative watchdog resigns – Chicago Tribune

0
39
illinois-top-legislative-watchdog-resigns-–-chicago-tribune

The top state official charged with policing allegations of wrongdoing by Illinois lawmakers and legislative staff announced her resignation Wednesday, calling the position “essentially a paper tiger.”

In a two-page resignation letter, Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope leveled criticisms echoing those of her predecessors, who also raised concerns about the office’s limited powers and the ability of lawmakers to shield colleagues from public scrutiny. She resigns amid an ongoing federal corruption investigation that has led to charges against a slew of former lawmakers.

Pope, a former judge and Menard County state’s attorney whose term runs through June 2023, blasted an ethics overhaul measure that was passed by lawmakers this spring and is sitting on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk. The bill, which she cited as a driving force behind her departure, has been widely criticized by good-government groups for failing to go far enough to address the state’s pervasive public corruption, and Pritzker himself has said more work remains.

“I thought I might be able to make a difference working from the inside,” Pope wrote to members of the Legislative Ethics Commission, an eight-member panel that oversees her office. “I thought I could be useful in improving the public’s view of the legislature and help bring about true ethics reform. Unfortunately, I have not been able to do so. This last legislative session has demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority.”

The Illinois State Capitol on May 21, 2019, in Springfield.

The Illinois State Capitol on May 21, 2019, in Springfield. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / Chicago Tribune)

The office “has no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations,” she added.

Rather than making the office more independent, as Pope and her two predecessors have repeatedly requested, the measure lawmakers approved in the final hours of their spring session would place new limitations on the inspector general’s ability to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, Pope said.

One of her office’s major requests was granted: The inspector general no longer would have to get permission to launch investigations from the ethics commission, whose members are appointed in equal number by each of the legislature’s four partisan caucus leaders.

Pope and her two predecessors, Julie Porter and Thomas Homer, also had pushed for the power to issue subpoenas and to publish reports of founded allegations of misconduct by lawmakers without first going to the ethics commission. The inspectors general have said there have been multiple occasions when the commission has blocked the public release of a report detailing findings of wrongdoing by a lawmaker, at times due to a partisan deadlock.

Under the proposal on Pritzker’s desk, the inspector general still would have to get the commission’s permission to issue subpoenas or release reports on lawmakers.

What’s more, Pope said in an interview last month, the overall package contains “more restriction than independence.”

Supporters say the bill passed this spring clarifies that the inspector general’s jurisdiction is limited to complaints that relate directly to lawmakers’ public duties, but critics, including some legislators who voted for the measure, contend that it puts new limitations on what types of wrongdoing can be investigated.

Under the measure, if Pope were to read about an alleged misdeed by a lawmaker in the newspaper, she no longer would be able to open an investigation unless someone filed a complaint with her office. Even then, she would only be able to investigate if the allegation directly related to a lawmaker’s public job.

Pope pointed to the case of former Republican state Rep. Nick Sauer, who resigned from the House in 2018 after being accused of sharing nude photos of an ex-girlfriend online, as something that would now fall outside her jurisdiction.

In her letter, Pope also notes that she would not be able to investigate allegations of tax evasion by a lawmaker if it did not involve his or her legislative salary.

State Rep. Avery Bourne, a Republican from Morrisonville, said during a debate on the House floor that the ethics commission, of which she is a member, provides an appropriate check to prevent unwarranted intrusion into lawmakers’ private lives.

However, Democratic Rep. Kelly Burke of Evergreen Park, who also serves on the commission, countered that the bill ultimately passed by lawmakers “is a good balance” and said that discussions about more ways to tighten ethical safeguards would continue.

Pope, who assumed the role in March 2019, offered her resignation effective Dec. 15 or when a replacement is named, “whichever comes first.”

Through the first half of this year, Pope’s office received 31 complaints alleging wrongdoing by lawmakers or staff and opened six investigations, with three pending, all categorized as ” other, miscellaneous, or uncharacterized claims,” according to the office’s most recent quarterly report.

The office the legislative inspector general has had a rocky history since it was created nearly two decades ago in the wake of corruption allegations against former Gov. George Ryan.

The office sat vacant for years after Homer, the first to hold the office, left at the end of June 2014, calling for more autonomy and transparency on his way out.

The vacancy was thrust into the spotlight in late 2017, when an advocate who raised sexual harassment allegations at the Capitol said her complaint went unheard.

Porter was appointed to the post on an interim basis. After Pope took over, having been appointed without opposition in the legislature, Porter published an op-ed in the Tribune decrying a “broken” system of handling complaints against lawmakers.

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com