Toothless watchdog

The illusion of oversight is more preferable to our legislators than the real thing.

Maytag used to run commercials that stressed the dependability of their washing machines by claiming that their repairmen were the "loneliest" men in town.

But the poor Maytag repairman, who never enjoyed any human contact because the company's washing machines were so darn dependable, had nothing on Tom Homer, the retiring inspector general of the Illinois General Assembly.

The difference between the two is that while the washing machines were designed to work and serve consumers in a positive way, the inspector general's office was designed not to work, or at least not to pose any real investigative oversight of legislators.

Hence, the perversity of state government in Illinois is on display again — the illusion of oversight for our mischievous legislators.

After 10 years on the job, Homer, a former prosecutor, legislator and judge, has had enough. The Associated Press reports that he leaves "frustrated by the handcuffs placed on his office and its ability to investigate and punish wrongdoing."

Nonetheless, the 67-year-old Homer deserves credit for trying. He has energetically lobbied legislators for stronger ethical rules and greater authority to pursue wrongdoing. Legislators have just as energetically resisted his proposals, preferring a toothless watchdog to one who actually might bite.

The fact that the office was created is ample testimony to legislators' concerns about political optics. But even more revealing of legislators' real intent in maintaining the status quo is how the inspector general is supposed to operate.

Homer reports that during his tenure he has investigated 163 formal complaints and referred 11 to federal prosecutors. What were the complaints? What did he discover? He can't say because the law mandates his silence.

That ought to tell people all they need to know about the Legislature's interest in holding its members accountable for misbehavior. They can't be held accountable if the public is denied information about issues for which they should be held accountable — but, of course, that's the idea.

Homer's departure will require the General Assembly to find a replacement for the $70,000 a year post. But it's not a high priority. With so little authority to act, there's just not much to do anyway.

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