Former Illinois Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter declared in a Chicago Tribune commentary published Tuesday that the office she used to lead is “broken.”
Porter wrote: “The LIG is supposed to be an independent, objective official to whom anyone can make a complaint about unethical or wrongful conduct by members of the Illinois General Assembly. But the legislative inspector general is not independent. Unless and until the legislature changes the structure and rules governing the LIG, it is a powerless role, and no LIG -- no matter how qualified, hardworking and persistent -- can effectively serve the public.”
“Chicago Tonight” interviewed Porter about her commentary. Below is an edited and condensed version of that interview.
Chicago Tonight: You say the office of the legislative inspector general is “broken.” How so?
Julie Porter: The first issue that I think is quite serious is that the LIG is compromised by the requirement that she report to a legislative ethics commission comprised entirely of legislators who have the ability to say no to opening an investigation, issuing a subpoena or publishing a founded summary report.
Those three checks on the LIG are substantive and powerful enough to thwart the LIG’s independence. These are not new issues structurally, but I really did not think that the commission would exercise those abilities to step in the LIG’s way. The Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC) has a very, very narrow jurisdiction. To have the LEC, which has a much narrower jurisdiction, be able to step in and be able to say that even though we don’t have jurisdiction we don’t like your conclusions and don’t want them to see the light of day – that is wrong. That should not happen.
CT: What reason did the commission cite for not publishing your reports? Are you able to tell us that?
Porter: I don’t think that I am at liberty to do that. What I can tell you is that there were meetings that I had with the LEC. Pursuant to the statute I am permitted to make a request and they vote on it. I presented my arguments to the LEC. And they have said publicly that they unanimously voted against publication. That’s true. But in terms of the reasons that they gave, I think it would be difficult for me to speak to that without sharing what the investigation was about and I’m not allowed to do that.
CT: What changes do you think are necessary to make the LIG’s office function as a true watchdog?
Porter: Number one is easy. There needs to be a change to the statute and rules to enable the IG to open investigations within her jurisdiction, issue subpoenas within her jurisdiction and publish founded summary reports without anyone’s permission.
The second thing is that to the extent that the commission retains a check and balance function – which is fine – it should not be comprised entirely of members of the General Assembly because even if you appoint people with the very best ethics and interest of the public in mind, and I’m not claiming that the people on the commission are otherwise, they have inherent conflicts of interest. When people have inherent conflicts of interest that gets messy and complicated.
CT: I know you are not at liberty to speak entirely freely, but can you give us a sense of what kind of things have you been investigating during your time in the role?
Porter: I investigated a very wide range of cases. From things like (people complaining) they saw a car on the interstate with state plates speeding, to sexual harassment claims, to conflict of interest claims, to retaliation claims – and that’s a small subset because as I said the jurisdiction is quite broad.
There are many dozens of investigations that I completed during my tenure that will not see the light of day and that’s fine. The reason they will not see the light of day is because after I completed my investigation I determined there was no violation and that the matter should be closed. In those sorts of situations I think it is very appropriate that they not be public. It wouldn’t be right to publish a report absent a finding by the LIG that someone engaged in wrongdoing. The exception is that when the legislative inspector general does find that there is wrongdoing. That’s something where the only accountability and the only way to improve culture and achieve change is to be transparent and to share those findings with the public.
CT: What is your impression of the attitude of legislators? It would be easy to assume they don’t want any oversight. Do you think they value the LIG’s role?
Porter: In my experience, the legislators that I dealt with seemed to earnestly wish to be cooperative and helpful for the most part. That was not unanimous but mostly that was the attitude I encountered. I think people were invariably concerned to be the subject of an LIG investigation and wanted to know that it was being handled carefully and with sensitivity and that they were being heard.
The LIG has extraordinarily broad discretion and a lot of this is about exercising judgment. And very smart, well-intentioned people can exercise judgment in very different ways. (But) just because something is hard and just because it is complicated doesn’t mean that it is not fit for public debate and analysis and review in order to make the General Assembly a better place. At least that is my view.
Speaking in general, I think that leaders who care about the institution will want an IG who can address serious issues. When it comes to things like legislation, it’s just very difficult to ask legislators to pass stricter laws that will regulate themselves. It’s a tough thing to ask folks to do. But I am hopeful that there are people in the General Assembly right now who will step up to address this.