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Illinois legislature’s watchdog resigns, says lawmakers have shown ethics reform 'not a priority'
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Illinois legislature’s watchdog resigns, says lawmakers have shown ethics reform 'not a priority'

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Ethics testimony - file

Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope, left, and former LIGs Julie Porter and Tom Homer testify before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform on Feb. 6, 2020, at the Capitol in Springfield.

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. 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, blasted an ethics overhaul proposal that was passed by lawmakers this spring and is sitting on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk. The measure, 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 office “has no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations,” she added.

Rather than providing more independence for the office, something 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 will 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 new law 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.

If Pope were to read about an alleged misdeed by a lawmaker in the newspaper, she wouldn’t 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 measure “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.”

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 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, with unanimous approval in the legislature, Porter published an op-ed in the Tribune decrying a “broken” system of handling complaints against lawmakers.

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