Don't be fooled

Don't be fooled

When headlines get ugly, our lawmakers hunker down and wait them out.

The public record demonstrates clearly that members of the Illinois House and Senate aren't particularly keen on serious oversight of their political or legislative activities.

That was true before the recent allegations that some members of the General Assembly sexually harassed female lobbyists, reporters and staff members. It remains true in the aftermath of the explosive charges that have male members of both bodies cowering in fear that, in this poisonous political atmosphere, they'll suffer the same fate as Chicago Democratic state Sen. Ira Silverstein.

Charged with displaying inappropriate interest in a female lobbyist, Silverstein has been badly wounded. It's no exaggeration to say that his political career is hanging by a thread.

That's why legislators, even though not interested in real oversight, are extremely interested in re-establishing the illusion of oversight.

They're determined, at least on those rare occasions when the public is paying attention, to create the perception that they set high standards for themselves, that wrongdoing by some members won't be tolerated by other members, that they are tireless servants of the people.

That's one reason why members of both political parties recently submitted to sexual harassment awareness training. It was all for show.

It's another reason why they rushed to fill the vacant legislative inspector general's post that somehow, someway, for the most inexplicable of reasons, legislative leaders had left vacant for nearly three years.

The legislative inspector general's job, when there's one there to do the job, is to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by legislators. Since there was no inspector general, nearly 30 complaints went uninvestigated. How convenient.

Finally, legislators rushed to pass two bills that Gov. Bruce Rauner signed last week. One starts a process by which the new legislative inspector general — former federal prosecutor and current Chicago lawyer Julie Porter — will look into new allegations of sexual harassment while the other lifts the one-year statute of limitations that applied to all the previous complaints that were ignored.

It all adds up to one thing — genuflection in the direction of self-policing.

That's why Rauner, in his signing statement, characterized the bill as a "positive but small step" in the right direction.

The fact is that individuals, no matter their status, cannot police themselves because they don't wish to police themselves.

They appoint the inspector general. The inspector general answers to a committee made up of the individuals she's supposed to police and operates under the rules the people she's supposed to police write. Even by Illinois standards, that makes no sense.

That's why Rauner called for "meaningful reform" to ensure the legislative inspector general "has robust and independent investigatory and enforcement power."

That should include clear prohibitions, not vague guidelines. Further, the penalties must have teeth, particularly in terms of public disclosure of alleged wrongdoing confirmed by an impartial investigation.

It's a tricky business to penalize elected officials for misconduct that might fall short of that required for criminal prosecution. That's why the public needs to be made aware of sleazy, unethical conduct so they can take it into consideration at the next election.

That's what Silverstein is — and should be — worried about. Disclosure is a real deterrent that politicians clearly understand.

But the people of Illinois ought not hold their breath waiting for reforms of this nature. Legislators known how to run circles around the public with faux oversight.

Just look at the pathetic lack of authority the Illinois State Board of Elections has when it comes to overseeing campaign spending. The anything-goes spending rules are by design, not accident.

Further, who do our legislators put in charge of overseeing the propriety of government spending? Illinois' current auditor general, Frank Mautino, a former Democratic member of the Illinois House, is under federal investigation for mishandling campaign funds, and what do his former Democratic colleagues have to say about it? Nothing.

That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it's going to stay as long as the foxes insist on remaining in charge of the hen house.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion