It's magic: Oversight back

It's magic: Oversight back

Isn't it amazing how quickly legislators can move when they feel political pressure?

Although the legislative inspector's general office has been vacant for roughly three years, there hasn't been much discussion among legislators about the need to fill this vacant post.

But a Hollywood sexual harassment scandal, a letter of protest from female lobbyists and reporters about obnoxious behavior by Illinois legislators and a public sexual harassment accusation against a Democratic state senator changed all that.

Suddenly, Illinois has — by legislative decree — an inspector general who's not only a former federal prosecutor but a woman to boot. Who says Illinois legislators, even the all-powerful Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, don't respond to public pressure.

It was just last week that Speaker Madigan said he could do little about filling the vacant post because he's just one legislator. Of course, in the next breath he was promising prompt action, a pledge that he and fellow legislators have now fulfilled.

The good news for legislators is that the legislative IG's post is the same sleeping, toothless watchdog that it was before. The position was created not to uncover legislators' misconduct but to provide cover for legislators concerned about public perceptions while covering up wrongdoing by refusing to release critical information to the public.

Despite that, it can't hurt the public interest to have to have Chicago lawyer Julie Porter in place, and she deserves credit for being enthusiastic, if just a tad naive, about the impact she can have.

"I can make a difference here. This is very important. When we look at our public officials, it's so important that people have trust in them," Porter said.

Trust? In an Illinois politician? They can't be trusted any farther than they can be thrown. Perhaps they can trusted after they've proven themselves trustworthy. Otherwise, they deserve nothing less than skepticism.

If anything is really to be done about legislators' misconduct — assuming there's evidence to support a charge of misconduct — it will result from public disclosure and a strong response by the voters.

That's why Sen. Ira Silverstein is in trouble. He was cruising toward re-election two weeks ago, before a female lobbyist publicly accused him of showing untoward personal interest in her after she sought his help to pass a bill.

Suddenly, he became Typhoid Marvin. He's been stripped of his legislative leadership post and been targeted by an opportunist Democratic rival for defeat in the March primary.

Sen. Silverstein may survive his primary fight, assuming he doesn't throw in the towel. But he stands as a terrifying example to other legislators of just how fast political circumstances can change in the aftermath of bad publicity.

IG Porter, who accepted the post on a temporary basis, will have her hands full. That's because in the absence of an IG, the number of unaddressed and ignored complaints built up to nearly 30.

But the process remains a sham because the legislator conduct rules are so vague that, short of criminal behavior that draws the attention of law enforcement, it's difficult to determine what is a violation and what isn't.

On top of that, there are no specific penalties, which is somewhat understandable given that legislators are elected by the voters and not accountable like a traditional employee would be to a traditional employer would be. Finally, investigative findings are confidential, not subject to pubic disclosure.

Unless the rules under which the IG operates are modified in ways that embrace disclosure, at a minimum, it's just more business as usual in Springfield.

Perhaps recognizing the sham nature of the IG process, Speaker Madigan is throwing another bone to legislative critics by proposing a bill that mandates sexual harassment awareness training.

That may sound good to some people. But do men and women really not understand the requirements of professional behavior? Of course, they do. But the reality is that, under certain circumstances and influences, men and women sometimes misbehave,

That's not going to change. The best way to deal with this is to guarantee consequences, not an easy thing to do in a political body, for those who cross the line.

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