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‘Paper Tiger’: Illinois’ Legislative Watchdog Resigns Citing Lack Of Ethics Reform

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Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope (left) and former LIGs Julie Porter and Tom Homer testifying before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform at the Capitol in Springfield in 2020.

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope resigned from her job on Wednesday after more than two years in the role she called a “paper tiger” for what she said was its relative powerlessness.

Pope told NPR Illinois that her repeated suggestions for how to improve the office have been ignored by the Democratically controlled General Assembly, and by her own assessment, legislation passed by lawmakers this spring aimed at ethics reform have actually weakened her office. The measure was sent to Gov. JB Pritzker but he hasn’t signed it yet.

Read more: ‘I Wanted More,’ Pritzker Says Of Ethics Bill; Promises Additional Ethics Provisions In Energy Deal

“The public has had it up to their eyebrows with public corruption, and when I came to this job, I really felt like by appointing somebody with my background, if I had the ability to do the job in the right way, it would…improve the public’s view of the legislature,” Pope said Wednesday. “But I just don’t feel like I’ve been able to do that at all. It’s just time to move along.”

In her resignation letter, Pope expressed that same frustration with that inability to make headway on “mak[ing] a difference working from the inside” and helping to “bring about true ethics reform.”

“This last legislative session demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority,” Pope wrote in her letter.

Pope, a retired appellate court judge, has served as the legislature’s watchdog since March 2019, and is only the second-ever permanent LIG. The position sat vacant for three years between 2014 and 2017 until sexual harassment claims against a sitting state senator prompted the hiring of an interim legislative watchdog in November 2017.

That interim LIG, Julie Porter, became an outspoken critic of how the role was set up, penning an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune shortly after leaving the role in 2019 calling the LIG’s office “broken.”

“The LIG is supposed to be an independent, objective official to whom anyone can go to lodge a complaint about unethical or wrongful conduct by members of the Illinois General Assembly,” Porter wrote at the time. “But the legislative inspector general is not independent. Unless and until the legislature changes the structure and rules governing the LIG, it is a powerless role, and no LIG — no matter how qualified, hardworking and persistent — can effectively serve the public.”

Pope would join in on her predecessor’s criticism less than a year into the role.

The summer and fall of 2019 were marked by FBI raids, subpoenas, leaks and even the arrest of a sitting lawmaker on bribery charges — what turned out to only be the opening salvo of a widespread corruption investigation from U.S. Attorney John Lausch.

In response, lawmakers passed a small ethics reform package that promised larger movement later, including the creation of a bipartisan commission that would gather testimony about possible ways to tighten state ethics laws, with a March 2020 deadline for a report on the issue.

The commission did meet for most of its prescribed dates during that winter, but when COVID-19 hit Illinois, the report was all but forgotten about and never published.

That left blistering testimony from Pope, Porter and the state’s first LIG, Tom Homer on the limitations of the office and ways to strengthen it as mere suggestions as ethics reform was pushed to the back burner last year.

While the General Assembly hardly met during 2020 due to COVID concerns, ethics reform was once again made a potent issue as the federal probe centered on former House Speaker Mike Madigan, who was dubbed “Public Official A” in charging documents last summer. Nearly a year later, Madigan has not been charged, but federal prosecutors allege utility giant Commonwealth Edison engaged in a years-long bribery scheme to curry favor with the powerful longtime speaker, who was ousted by members of his own party in January.

The probe has grown larger since then, bringing ethics reform into focus yet again, with legislation addressing ethics reform emerging on the last day of scheduled legislative session on May 31. Democrats praised the bill as a meaningful step forward for accountability in Springfield, but Republicans railed against the measure as window dressing. However, most GOP members begrudgingly voted for the legislation instead of being on the record as voting against anything labeled ethics reform.

But Pope said the new legislation not only largely ignored most of her testimony from last year and earlier this spring, but also weakens the LIG’s role moving forward.

“Instead of expanding the role and the power of the legislative inspector general, it’s been restricted,” Pope told NPR Illinois. “And as a result, I just don’t feel like I can be effective in this job anymore, so I felt it necessary to tender my resignation.”

Pope has repeatedly urged lawmakers to change the way the Legislative Ethics Commission — a bipartisan, eight-member panel of legislators — interacts with the LIG, especially in that the commission must vote to release reports from the LIG. The commission has deadlocked before, leaving unpublished two reports completed during Porter’s term, one in which she said a lawmaker engaged in wrongdoing.

Pope has advocated for adding a ninth, public member to the commission to serve as a tiebreaker vote, and otherwise asked the General Assembly to allow the LIG to publish reports without the commission’s vote, but neither request has been heeded.

If Pritzker signs the ethics reform legislation lawmakers passed in May, the LIG could no longer investigate allegations against lawmakers that arise from outside of government service, but which Pope said is important for a legislator’s overall integrity.

“It restricts the LIG from investigating allegations of ‘conduct unbecoming of a legislator,’ such as a legislator who might post revenge porn on social media…the LIG would not be able to open an investigation into that unless he was using a state computer,” Pope said. “But if he was using his home computer, the LIG now cannot investigate that type of a case.”

Former State Rep. Nick Sauer (R-Barrington) resigned from the Illinois House in 2018 after an ex-girlfriend accused him of using naked photos of her online to “catfish” other men on social media. After turning himself in when a warrant was issued for his arrest in 2019, Sauer is still awaiting trial, which has been delayed by the pandemic.

It was also sexual harassment outside of work that led to the hiring of former LIG Porter, who found former State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) behaved “in a manner unbecoming of a legislator” when he repeatedly made advances in texts and Facebook messages with a victims’ rights advocate with whom he was working on legislation. It’s that kind of finding — in addition to very real scenarios where lawmakers are found to have not paid their taxes — that would become off-limits for the LIG to weigh in on.

“To me, that would be an ethical violation,” Pope said. “You’re not behaving like a legislator should. The LIG would be restricted from investigating that.”

Pope said the ethics legislation awaiting Pritzker’s signature would also prohibit the LIG from opening an investigation based on media reports or allegations on other public forums like social media, unless a formal complaint is filed with her office. She warned that it was entirely possible no complaint would ever be filed despite widespread attention, and the LIG’s hands would be tied from investigating.

In her resignation letter, Pope called that change a “throwback” to legislation from more than a decade ago.

“For the last 12 years, the LIG has been able to open an investigation based on public allegations in the media. But no longer,” Pope wrote.

In a joint statement Wednesday, State Rep. Kelly Burke (D-Evergreen Park), who sponsored the ethics legislation and sits on the Legislative Ethics Commission, and State Rep. Maurice West (D-Rockford), who who sits on the panel, thanked Pope for her service and defended the legislation.

“The ethics reform package, which passed nearly unanimously this Spring, is an excellent first step and we have always been committed to further conversations that will continue to rebuild trust back in our state government,” Burke and West said. “We do thank Ms. Pope for detailing some of her concerns in her resignation letter, but we feel confident that many are addressed in the new ethics package — or through law enforcement, which is the proper and just avenue for criminal activity outside the purview of official duties.”

State Sen. Jil Tracy (R-Quincy), who chairs the Legislative Ethics Commission took aim at Democrats in her statement Wednesday.

“It is unfortunate that the Majority legislative leaders did not make better use of [Pope’s] skills and her willingness to make some much-needed changes that would benefit ALL lawmakers,” Tracy said. “Ethics reform in Illinois has long been an ongoing challenge.”

In the end, Pope said she felt she had no choice but to resign.

“I think that the system could be greatly improved with the suggestions I’ve given to the legislature,” Pope told NPR Illinois. “And I’ve tried my best to get that done and it really doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere. I would say that most people would be disappointed with the way things wound down in the General Assembly this year. It was supposed to be the year of big ethics reform and I don’t think that happened.”

Pope said she’s willing to stay on the job until a replacement is found or Dec. 15 — whichever comes first.

Hannah Meisel covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio.

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