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Legislative Ethics Commission deadlock over report on alleged wrongdoing points to party-line voting inspector general’s office says is a problem

Chicago Tribune

Friday, February 14, 2020  |  Article  |  Dan Petrella

Ethics, Campaign Reform, Transparency (12a)

A tie vote by the Legislative Ethics Commission that led to a report on alleged wrongdoing by a member of the General Assembly being blocked may have been an example of partisan politics that current and former inspectors generals cite as one of the problems that has stymied their efforts.

 

Last week, former Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter told a state ethics task force that the commission — a bipartisan panel of eight lawmakers from the Illinois House and Senate — blocked the release of a report in which she found “serious wrongdoing” by a sitting legislator.

 

The details of the alleged wrongdoing remain secret because Porter and members of the ethics commission are bound by confidentiality when reports aren’t made public. Porter and her predecessor and successor, Tom Homer and Carol Pope, have been pushing for more independence for the office, a move backed by some lawmakers in both parties.

 

Under state law, a majority of the Legislative Ethics Commission must approve the release of reports in which the inspector general has found wrongdoing by lawmakers. The three current and former inspectors general testified last week that there have been several instances over the years of party-line votes that have blocked the release of reports.

 

Records from Legislative Ethics Commission meetings in May, obtained through an open-records request, show the panel considered a case in which the inspector general had determined someone violated a state law requiring lawmakers and legislative staff to cooperate with her investigations.

 

Porter’s testimony last week indicated that before leaving office in February 2019 she’d asked the attorney general’s office to bring a formal complaint before the commission. At a May 16 meeting, the commission considered a petition from the attorney general’s office. Democratic Sen. Terry Link of Vernon Hills made a motion to close the case, which was seconded by Democratic Rep. Kathleen Willis of Addison. The motion failed on a 4-4 vote, leaving the case open.

 

Due to a procedural problem with the initial vote, the issue came before the commission again eight days later. This time, Republican Rep. Norine Hammond of Macomb made a motion, seconded by Republican Rep. Avery Bourne of Raymond, to find that the complaint showed sufficient evidence that the law had been violated. There was another 4-4 vote, and this one resulted in the report remaining secret.

 

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Bourne, chairman of the commission, said the second vote was taken because state law doesn’t require the attorney general’s office to get permission to bring a complaint. She declined to comment on the breakdown of either vote or the specifics of the case in question.

 

Willis and fellow Democratic commission members Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin and Rep. Natalie Manley of Joliet declined to comment, in some cases citing confidentiality requirements. Link did not respond to requests for comment.

 

Porter’s testimony last week wasn’t the first time she’s raised complaints about the lack of independence granted to the legislative inspector general.

 

In an op-ed publish in April in the Chicago Tribune, she said the commission also blocked another report in which she found wrongdoing by another lawmaker. At the time, Bourne said the decision not to release that report was unanimous.

 

In a third instance, Pope decided not to request the release of a third report in which Porter found wrongdoing. Pope said her decision was based on a different interpretation of state law.

 

Porter was appointed acting legislative inspector general in late 2017 as #MeToo scandals were hitting Springfield. The position had been vacant for three years, allowing ethics complaints to languish.