A former watchdog fielding and investigating complaints involving state lawmakers said the panel of lawmakers overseeing the investigations “cannot be trusted” because it buried multiple founded reports, including one serious enough that the Attorney General took it up.
Amid wide-ranging federal corruption investigations, state lawmakers last fall created the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reforms made of appointees from all four legislative caucuses, and the offices of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
On Thursday in Springfield, the commission discussed the role of the Legislative Inspector General and the Legislative Ethics Commission. The Legislative Inspector General investigates, but the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is comprised of lawmakers appointed by legislative leaders, must approve founded reports.
Attorney Julie Porter became the Legislative Inspector General after lawmakers had left the position vacant for years while complaints involving lawmakers piled up. Porter served in the watchdog role from November 2017 to February 2019.
After testifying to the commission Thursday, Porter said she referred one serious investigation of wrongdoing to the Attorney General, who she said then filed a complaint.
But she then left the office and believes the panel of lawmakers dismissed it, and she said she doesn’t think it’s possible the Attorney General filed that report to law enforcement.
“No,” she said. “Because I know what it’s about.”
She said she couldn't disclose any details about the case because of state law.
“Some of the most detailed and important investigations that I did, did not see the light of day,” she said.
Asked whether such reports would ever be released, Porter said it was possible.
“The only thing that I can think of is that a Legislative Inspector General could represent reports and ask them to be considered anew,” Porter said. “I am no longer the LIG and I cannot do that and I cannot speak for [current] LIG Carol Pope.”
Asked if she’d do the job again, she said “no” because the role as it exists has investigators “banging their heads against the wall.”
“Knowing what I know now about the statute, if I were asked to come in tomorrow and do this role again under the same rules, I would not do that because I do think that it would be a waste of time,” Porter said.
In a written statement to the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reforms, Porter said that the Legislative Ethics Commission “cannot be trusted” because they blocked several founded reports of lawmaker wrongdoing from being published.
Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reforms co-chair state Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, said that was "disturbing."
“That’s a disturbing perspective,” Sims said. “I think that presupposes that individuals can’t make decisions that are in the best interest of the state of Illinois and I don’t subscribe to that perspective. I think that clearly there’s a crisis of confidence and I’ve said that over and over again and we have to do what’s in the best interest of the state of Illinois.”
During Thursday's hearing, current Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope said the law must change.
“There is not another IG in the state of Illinois who has to ask anybody for permission to open an investigation,” Pope said.
Another former Legislative Inspector General, Judge Tom Homer, testified about the issues he encountered trying to investigate wrongdoing by lawmakers.
Homer, Pope and Porter offered suggestions to make the Legislative Inspector General and Legislative Ethics Commission operations more fruitful, including giving the Legislative Inspector General autonomy to investigate claims without first getting permission from the panel of lawmakers. Right now the Legislative Inspector General can investigate harassment allegations without prior permission, but all other complaint investigations must be approved by the Legislative Ethics Commission.
Another recommendation was to have the Legislative Ethics Commission include non-legislative members. The Legislative Ethics Commission is comprised of eight state lawmakers, two appointed from each caucus of the House and Senate. Porter said in her written statement having lawmakers on the commission that oversees founded reports of lawmaker wrongdoing was akin to a “fox guarding the henhouse.”
Yet another recommendation about the makeup of the Legislative Ethics Commission was to bring in a possible ninth member to break ties in votes to release founded reports.
Some of the recommendations offered during the various hearings of the joint commission have been previously proposed as bills either for months and in some cases years. They haven’t advanced.
Commission co-chair House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said the commission members were taking their time to get all the input necessary to find the right reforms.
“I think we’re going look at all the suggestions that we got from the inspectors general, from the government reform groups, from all the other witnesses that we have, and then we’re going to have to find legislation that will pass both chambers that will get to the governor’s desk and get his signature,” he said.
A member of the Joint Commission on Lobbying and Ethics Reforms who is also on the Legislative Ethics Commission was not present at Thursday’s hearing. State Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, was in her district “dealing with business,” Sims said at the start of the meeting.
The commission has more hearings scheduled before it is required to produce a report with recommendations due by the end of March.