Toothless legislative ethics law
Our state legislators only pay lip service to the concept of ethics in government.
An unfolding political scandal in Chicago recently brought the name of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to public attention.
Madigan was identified, among others, as someone using his political clout to seek favors from the executive director at Metra, the commuter rail agency, specifically pressing for a pay raise for a campaign donor and worker at the government-run agency.
Madigan acknowledged making the request and insisted that he had done nothing wrong. To make that point, he wrote a letter to Tom Homer, the state's legislative inspector general, that asked for an investigation by Homer of Madigan's involvement in the misdeeds at Metra.
It's hard to imagine that, however inappropriate Madigan's request was, his action to assist a political friend violated any state law. But, even if there is fire to go along with the smoke, it's unlikely that Homer would be able to do anything about it in his role as legislative inspector general.
Homer, who has held the post since it was created in 2003, has described the state's ethics enforcement process as "toothless" and urged legislators without success to give his office more authority, including the power to censure or even suspend legislators.
The current law, which was passed in 1967, is described as being so vague that it's unclear what constitutes an ethical violation. Further, the law is difficult to enforce because of the lack of available penalties. Finally, in most cases the findings cannot be made public.
That pretty much constitutes the hat trick of non-enforcement — no specificity for what constitutes wrongdoing, no penalties and no publicity.
So what is the point? It's all about empty symbolism designed to convince the public that there is oversight of legislative misconduct that falls short of criminality.
"Our goal is to heighten the trust of the citizens of Illinois in the functions of their government," according to the self-description of the duties of Homer's office on a state website.
People may feel good about such reassuring words, but there is no reason to be confident that they amount to anything more than empty rhetoric.
Homer reports to an eight-member Legislative Ethics Commission, a body appointed by legislative leaders. It consists of four members each from the Illinois Senate and House and is divided equally among Republicans and Democrats.
The bipartisan arrangement speaks clearly as to the actual intent of state legislators. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in the General Assembly want anyone in authority looking over their shoulders as they ply their trade in state government. They detest being accountable to the news media and law enforcement, and they surely are not going to add to their potential troubles by giving an ethics commission the authority to conduct legitimate inquiries into questionable activities.
State Rep. Lou Lang, one of the members of Madigan's House leadership team, said as much when he indicated that majorities in both houses have no intention of accommodating Homer's request for more authority to pursue wrongdoing.
"I don't think we're interested in people running amok and doing all sorts of wild goose chases and fishing expeditions looking for ethical violations for members," he said.
Truer words, undoubtedly, were never spoken. Until that attitude changes, the notion of legislative ethics, enforced by the General Assembly, will remain a disappointing oxymoron of state government in Illinois.