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Why not give state watchdog power to act?

Former appellate court Justice Carol Pope doesn’t have feathers or wings. Nonetheless, she represents the canary in the coal mine when it comes to promises by legislators to adopt rules that would rein in some of their questionable, but permissible, conduct.

As the legislative inspector general, it’s Pope’s job to look into allegations of misconduct, not necessarily criminal conduct, by members of the Illinois House and Senate.

But her authority is intentionally limited by rules that make it difficult for her office to conduct investigations and improper to release the results of her investigations to the public.

She testified before a legislative committee this week, asking for more independence to do her job. She should get it.

The word “independent” ought to go hand in hand with another crucial word, “investigation.”

How, one wonders, can a duly authorized inquisitor actually conduct a full and impartial investigation without the independence to do so.

The answer is that the duly authorized investigator can’t — or at least not without jumping over a series of hoops specifically designed to impede the process.

That’s the atmosphere in which the legislative inspector general must labor.

For example, Pope must get permission from a panel of legislators — the Legislative Ethics Commission — to look into wrongdoing. She must get permission from the same group before she can issue subpoenas for witnesses. If she actually gets to the point of conducting an actual investigation and discovers wrongdoing by a legislator, she is expected to file a formal report but keep the contents of that report top secret.

What’s going on here?

It’s Illinois’ long-standing practice of faux reform — passing rules that are designed to encourage public confidence in our legislators but filled with so many limits and loopholes as to be meaningless. It’s a ruse.

Pope is not the first legislative inspector general to complain about restrictions on her ability to do the job. One of her predecessors — Tom Homer — suggested some of the same changes that Pope has.

But Pope has the advantage of seeking meaningful changes in a political atmosphere that has encouraged some — certainly not all — of our legislators to speak publicly about the importance of real ethics reform.

The pending Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal is another disgrace to Illinois. But it’s also useful in explaining why state government needs a thorough cleaning.

So are our legislators serious about changes like those Pope recommended? Or are expressions of support just empty rhetoric that will be conveniently and quietly flushed down the drain when few people are looking?

The legislative inspector general has been the equivalent of a red-headed stepchild since it was first created. It is a post so toothless that, at one point, legislative leaders didn’t bother to fill it for months. Legislators would have continued to leave it vacant but for a sexual harassment scandal involving legislative staffers that broke into public view.

In the past, legislators accused of wrongdoing, like former Speaker Michael Madigan, could confidently call for an inspector general’s investigation confident that any wrongdoing uncovered would remain covered.

That didn’t work for Madigan, who was accused of using his political clout to pressure heads of governmental entities throughout Illinois to give pay raises to his favorite patronage employees.

It was another ugly little chapter in Illinois history that became public only after Homer’s report was leaked to the news media. The public’s interest was served by learning how Madigan operated behind the scenes.

So what does the future hold?

This being Illinois, the likelihood of substantive action is not great. But hope springs eternal. The General Assembly’s response to Pope’s reasonable requests will speak volumes.

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