Chesney Guest Column: Restoring Trust in Illinois Government

Illinois residents deserve a state government that is ethical, honest and accountable. If you are skeptical about this being a realistic goal after decades of high-profile corruption in Illinois, you are not alone. As your voice in Springfield, however, I refuse to accept that corruption is a part of our system that cannot be eradicated.

First and foremost, we need to strengthen the independent watchdog responsible under state law for ethics complaints against state lawmakers, the Office of the Legislative Inspector General (LIG).

By law, the LIG is a fully independent part of the General Assembly. The LIG and their staff are responsible for investigating violations of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act when they take place within the boundaries of the state legislature.  The LIG is required to listen to, and take in for its records, all allegations and reports of violations.  The LIG has jurisdiction over all current and former members and employees of the General Assembly for conduct during their time in office.  With bipartisan consent, the LIG can forward complaints against a named individual to law enforcement.

In the recent past, the LIG has been a challenged, troubled office.  During the tenure of now-indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan, although the LIG theoretically had jurisdiction over the conduct of state legislators and their staff, the LIG office was often kept vacant or powerless. 

Former Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope announced in July 2021 that she would resign her post in December, calling the Office of the LIG a “paper tiger” after a bill passed earlier in 2021 failed to include meaningful ethics reform in Illinois. After an impasse within the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC) to fill the vacant LIG position, Pope agreed to stay on through January 6, 2022.

The position remained vacant for over a month until a new LIG was appointed in February. Our new LIG, retired federal judge Michael McCuskey, has said his role is to serve as a watchdog, not a prosecutor.  In an interview last week, McCuskey said he wants to focus on strengthening investigation and law-enforcement referrals within his office.  He noted that his office has received 40 complaints so far this year about alleged conduct by General Assembly members and their staffs, has investigated them all, and has found that none show serious wrongdoing.

Would you believe that not until this year did we change the law to give the Legislative Inspector General the ability to independently investigate allegations of ethical misconduct against state lawmakers without first having to get permission from the politicians who sit on the Legislative Ethics Commission? Such a common-sense reform was long overdue.

We still need to make important changes in the way the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC) processes ethics complaints. I support specific, real reforms proposed in Senate Bill 3030, that will:

  • Require LEC meetings to be open to the public, and have the meetings publicly posted;
  • No longer allow elected officials to serve as members of the LEC; and
  • Provide the LIG with subpoena power to investigate ethics complaints against members of the Illinois General Assembly.

Another common-sense reform would be to prohibit politicians from using campaign funds to pay for their legal defense in a criminal case. Last year, I filed House Bill 1919 to put that proposal into state law. House Democrats buried it in committee and denied it even a hearing.

Let’s come together as Republicans, Democrats and independents to demand meaningful ethics reform in Springfield and begin to restore the confidence of Illinois residents in our state government.