News Local/State

Watchdog Says Legislative Ethics Office Is ‘Broken,’ Calls For Stronger Conflict-Of-Interest Rules

A foggy day at the state capitol.

Amanda Vinicky/NPR Illinois

The former ethics watchdog for the Illinois General Assembly says the office is “broken.”

Julie Porter says as her term was ending earlier this year, lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission buried a report in which she concluded one of their colleagues had engaged in wrongdoing.

Much of the work Porter did during the the roughly 16 months she was Illinois' acting legislative inspector general remains secret.

She seems to have concluded the majority of complaints she evaluated were “unfounded,” or at least that there was not enough evidence to sustain them, and unfounded complaints are not published.

The decision whether to publish founded complaints is up to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is composed of eight legislators — two Democrats and two Republicans from the Illinois House, and two Democrats and two Republicans from the state Senate.

There seem to be three cases in which Porter concluded the allegations against lawmakers were founded. But only one of those was made public by the Legislative Ethics Commission — the case in which then-state Sen. Ira Silverstein was found to have engaged in conduct unbecoming of a legislator.

Porter says the other two cases came toward the end of her appointment, which expired in February. One was still pending when Porter’s term ended, and her successor, former appellate judge Carol Pope, decided to close the case without asking the commission to publish the findings. Porter disagrees with Pope’s decision, but praised her as ethical and able.

In the other case, Porter asked the commission to publish her report, but the commission denied the request.

I felt very strongly that it should be published, and I was shocked when the commission rejected that request."Julie Porter, former Legislative Inspector General

“I felt very strongly that it should be published, and I was shocked when the commission rejected that request,” Porter said Wednesday in an interview. “That is not the way this should go. It should not be a function of whether the commission agrees with the LIG’s analysis, agrees with her interpretation of the facts or the law.”

Citing the commission’s decision, Porter would not discuss the nature of the case or which legislator or legislators were involved.

The chair of the Legislative Ethics Commission, Republican state Rep. Avery Bourne, of Raymond, said Wednesday the decision not to publish was unanimous.

In a telephone interview, Bourne was asked why the commission voted to keep the finding secret. Like Porter, she declined to discuss the case, citing the confidentiality of the commission’s work.

Porter said members of the commission — and the public — are free to disagree with her conclusions: “I am not perfect. I make mistakes. But I certainly worked earnestly and hard on that investigation for a very long time, and worked hard to reach conclusions that I thought were not only fair but important for public debate and things that needed to be addressed within the General Assembly.”

Porter said in order for a legislative inspector general to be effective, she must be able to independently exercise three powers that currently require approval by the commission: the power to open investigations, the power to issue subpoenas, and the power to publish findings of wrongdoing.

In an op-ed published Tuesday on the Chicago Tribune’s website, Porter wrote that the inspector general has no power to punish lawmakers: “The only way to hold a legislator accountable in Illinois — and to promote discussion and change — is for the LIG to be able to publish her findings.”

It doesn’t do much good for the LIG to be able to conduct an investigation if her findings go into a box that no one ever reads and no one ever sees."Julie Porter, former Legislative Inspector General

“It doesn’t do much good for the LIG to be able to conduct an investigation if her findings go into a box that no one ever reads and no one ever sees,” Porter said in the interview.

Porter also said it’s a problem that the commission is made up only of members of the General Assembly. Before the inspector general can submit cases to the commission, she has to have presented them to the allegedly wrongdoing legislator’s “ultimate jurisdictional authority” — that is, House Speaker Michael Madigan for House Democrats, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin for House Republicans, Senate President John Cullerton for Senate Democrats, and Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady for Senate Republicans.

Finally, Porter said Illinois needs stronger conflict-of-interest rules for legislators.

She says one could imagine a situation in which a legislator has a direct financial interest in a piece of legislation that he or she is sponsoring. Or a lawmakers has a day job in a profession that’s directly affected by legislation he or she is voting on.

Porter says that’s fine — she’s not suggesting a ban on outside employment. “But there needs to be some transparency about what those interests are, so that when somebody takes the floor and says ’this is a law that is good for the people of Illinois; this is something that should be passed,’ if there is some conflict of interest where the passage of the legislation would benefit someone’s business or someone’s industry … there need to be some rules about that,” Porter said.

“Because if you’re on the other side of that … even though the legislator may believe down to their bones that what they’re doing is right for the people of Illinois, others can disagree,” Porter said. “And when those others see well hey this guy is getting a fee or this is going to benefit and put money in this person’s pocket, that brings our General Assembly into disrepute and it causes people not to have trust or faith in their legislators.

“That’s something that many other states have; Illinois does not and it needs to,” Porter said.