Super sounds of the Illinois legislature

The hits just keep coming

Just before the shark attacks on Fourth of July weekend in Amity, music wafts over the beach from the transistor radio of Chief Brody, the cop hired to keep the village safe.

"Maybe I hang around here, a little more than I should..."

All these years later, there is no faster way to empty a barroom or church than to play "I Honestly Love You." Folks flee faster than beachgoers when the Great White shows up. In Springfield, legislators now croon like Olivia Newton-John, a saccharine-meets-Splenda stage of the game that puts scribes and sundry masochists on the verge of self-immolation as they endure hearings of the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform, which, since January, has spent too many hours chewing cud. The shark will come soon enough: A report is due on March 31.

The commission isn't in the mood for big bites, which explains why it's only wading out knee-deep in an effort at convincing folks that lawmakers are serious about fixing a system that everyone knows has been fixed for a very long time, and not in the right ways. The commission never would have been commissioned but for indictments, wiretaps, search warrants, resignations, guilty pleas and an ongoing federal investigation that has lawmakers saying "There's really nothing to see here, we're honest folk, mostly."

The real world seems far away at these confabs stretching hours. Commissioners have countenanced much talk of a citizen legislature, as if bookkeepers or mechanics are getting time off from regular life to play lawmaker, a gig that pays $67,836 a year, plus a $111 per diem during sessions, plus extra pay for being assistant deputy whip to the minority assistant whip, plus a pension, plus health insurance, plus an expense account in the guise of campaign contributions that can be used for fancy cars and fancy hotels and fancy meals and salaries for kin. Where I come from, that's a living.

What commissioners have pondered is as old as it is obvious. Should legislators who moonlight as arm-twisters be required to disclose lobbying ventures? Is it OK for a lawmaker who quits the General Assembly to start lobbying former colleagues the next day? What about disclosing sources of wealth outside the legislature – maybe we should revise Swiss-cheese forms that allow legislators to state "none" when they should be writing "lots." This fruit hangs low, so something might get done about lobbying and disclosing outside income. Transformative reform, the sort makes corruption much riskier for the crooked, is a different matter.

There's a blueprint in the form of a 2009 report from the Illinois Reform Commission, a defunct group created by former Gov. Pat Quinn after his predecessor got impeached and, ultimately, convicted. Instead of adopting reforms suggested by smart folks who weren't elected, lawmakers back then formed a committee of legislators that came up with weaker sauce. Consider the legislature's inspector general, a creature of lawmakers from whom it is supposed to be independent.

Three current and former legislative inspectors general – and there have only been three, aside from J. William Roberts, a Springfield lawyer who quit not long after being named on a temporary basis – have told the commission that it's impossible to hold lawmakers and their employees accountable because the inspector general can't open an investigation absent permission from a panel of eight lawmakers, four from each party. If wrongdoing is found, the inspector general can't tell anyone, absent permission from that same panel. If there's a 4-4 vote, not unusual if a panel is evenly split between parties, nothing happens. Former inspector Julie Porter says that the panel, dubbed the legislative ethics commission, has refused to make public reports on lawmakers she concluded had misbehaved, and she's not at liberty to say much more than that because the law creating the inspector general includes a standing gag order.

The Illinois Reform Commission had an answer: Abolish the position of legislative inspector general as well as the legislative ethics commission and let one inspector general handle allegations of wrongdoing no matter where they arise in state government, which now employs six inspectors general, one for each constitutional office, plus the legislature. While this might not sound good to, say, the state treasurer's inspector general, who last year initiated just two investigations (most complaints were referred to other investigative agencies) while getting paid $104,200, it would get lawmakers out of the business of overseeing investigations they shouldn't oversee. Alternatively, lawmakers could put a ninth member on the legislative ethics commission, someone with no ties to the legislature.

Despite obvious solutions, six years have passed since the first legislative inspector general called the post a paper tiger when he left the position, and nothing's changed.

Maybe the reform game is like what Clemenza said in The Godfather: "These things gotta happen every five years or ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood."

Then again, there's a new Chief Brody on the beach. Gov. J.B. Pritzker says it's time to get serious about corruption. The shark is easy to find. Happy hunting.

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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