Illinois legislature's ex-inspector says watchdog post 'broken'

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The recently departed ethics watchdog of the Illinois General Assembly said Wednesday she was refused permission to publish a substantiated report of wrongdoing by a legislator in a system she described as broken.

Julie Porter, who was the interim legislative inspector general from 2017 to last month, wrote in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune that the Legislative Ethics Commission, made up entirely of lawmakers, denied her request to publish a report on a legislator's wrongdoing just before she left office.

The former federal prosecutor said state law precluded her from discussing details of that case. But Porter said the job is powerless as it stands. She said the inspector should not have to seek the commission's permission to initiate an investigation, issue subpoenas or publish a report of substantiated wrongdoing.

"The legislative inspector general is not independent," Porter wrote. "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."

She noted she was not the first to raise questions. The last full-time inspector, former legislator and appellate court justice Tom Homer, issued an indictment of the job as a "toothless tiger" when he left in 2014, making suggestions for changes which Porter said never occurred.

Porter was ushered into the post, left vacant for four years because lawmakers could find no one to take it, amid a sexual harassment crisis in the Legislature. A legislative activist had complained of unwanted attention from a sitting senator with whom she was working on legislation, and complained that her issue had sat dormant without action for a year.

With that a string of other harassments and intimidation complaints which derailed the careers of several more politicians and staff members, state law gave the inspector general more authority, but Porter said more needs to be done. A good first step would be to appoint non-legislators to the commission instead of lawmakers with "inherent conflicts of interest."

Rep. Avery Bourne, a Republican from Raymond who is chairwoman of the bipartisan ethics commission, said she could not discuss the details of the unpublished case either, but noted the vote by the commission was unanimous. There are legitimate reasons not to publish, she said.

Bourne said the law already allows commission membership by outsiders. "We view our role as independent of the process," she said, noting that she's unaware of the commission ever denying an inspector permission to open a case and that commissioners don't know any details of the allegations before an investigation.

She would not express opinions on suggested adaptations, saying "changes need to be made in the Legislature," but given the importance of the work done by the commission and the inspector general "it's important that we make sure the conversation is ongoing."