What’s the point of trying to do a job that can’t be done well?
Former appellate court Justice Carol Pope last week became the latest in a series of legislative inspectors general to describe her post as “essentially a paper tiger” and question legislators’ commitment to enforcing ethical conduct.
As a consequence, Pope submitted her resignation.
She’s right, of course. But what else is new? The obvious purpose of her office, which was created in 2004, is to create the illusion of an institutional commitment to honorable conduct in office, not the real thing.
Appointed in 2019, Pope came into the office with her eyes wide open regarding the inspector general’s independence.
Her mistake, apparently, was believing Democratic and Republican legislators could be embarrassed into making changes providing more leeway to pursue allegations of misconduct.
But history demonstrates that Illinois politicians, particularly members of the House and Senate, are incapable of being embarrassed. If they weren’t, they’d have fallen all over themselves to make some of the changes suggested not only by Pope but Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
After all, Illinois currently is awash in criminal investigations involving legislators, most prominently former Speaker of the House Michael Madigan.
Some voters may recall Pritzker’s speech last year to members of the General Assembly when he implored them to approve tighter ethics rules, particularly concerning legislators’ ability to moonlight as lobbyists.
But by the time the General Assembly adjourned in May, legislators produced a shell of an ethics bill designed only to fool the public into thinking they had made substantive changes.
That’s why Pope, in her resignation letter, criticized the measure now awaiting the governor’s inevitable signature.
“This last legislative session demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority. The [Legislative Inspector General] has no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations,” she wrote.
Under Illinois law, Pope’s post is overseen by a bipartisan panel of eight legislators divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.
The equal number allows one party to block action by the other party, and that matters because the inspector general needs the panel’s approval to initiate an investigation. Even if the inspector general gets the committee’s approval and conducts a substantive investigation that uncovers misconduct, public disclosure of that misconduct is forbidden by law.
Restrictions like that, she said, leave her “unable to remain in a position where I cannot be as effective as I hoped to be.”
Republicans were quick to blame super-majority Democrats for refusing to take strong action on ethics, a fair criticism because Democrats control state government in Illinois. Unfortunately, there has long been a bipartisan lack of enthusiasm for writing rules that restrict legislators’ ability to feather their own nests.
Pope offered to stay on for a few more months to give legislators time to fill the post. But they won’t be in a great hurry.
After former Inspector General Tom Homer resigned in 2014, they left the post vacant for three years.