Friday, April 18, 2014

Legislative inspector general calls for laws targeting patronage and clout

By Jamey Dunn

Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer is leaving the job at the end of June. On his way out, Homer is making the case for ethics reforms in the state.

Homer sent a letter to lawmakers this week urging them to enact stronger ethics laws geared toward preventing patronage hiring practices and giving teeth to the office of legislative inspector general. He cited recent scandals, including students being admitted into the University of Illinois after lawmakers and other influence wielders intervened on their behalf and House Speaker Michael Madigan’s apparent influence on hiring at Metra.

Homer, who is a former state representative and a former judge, said there is nothing wrong with lawmakers advocating for their constituents. But he says that all constituents should get the opportunity, not just campaign donors or the well connected. “When insiders can lay claim to political spoils, people without political connections are denied equal opportunities for government jobs or admission to public universities. Moreover, taxpayers lose when public funds are expended for expensive legal settlements, investigations and attorney’s fees associated with scandals that arise from such activities,” Homer said in a prepared statement.

He called for state agencies and public universities to keep a list of hiring and admissions requests made by lawmakers and other officials. The list would be open to the public. Metra informally kept such a list, but it was only released to the public after a task force seeking to reform the agency reported its existence. Metra released the documents, dubbed the "patronage files" by the task force, this week under a Freedom of Information Act request. The task force called Madigan a “prominent participant” in patronage hiring at Metra over the last 30 years.

At Madigan's request, Homer investigated his involvement and found no violation of the law. The investigation was closed earlier this month. Homer said he could not comment on any specific investigation, but he did have this to say at the time: “Although I can recommend new laws to address what I believe to be inappropriate conduct by legislators, enforcement actions are limited to violations of existing laws and rules.”

Homer also recommended more transparency from his office. He said that the inspector general should be able to release more information from investigations and that the current confidentiality requirements mean that some finding of misconduct from lawmakers never see “the light of day.” He renewed his call for penalties to enforce conflict-of-interest provisions for lawmakers. Currently, the code of conduct for lawmakers is “intended only as guides to legislator conduct, and not as rules meant to be enforced by disciplinary action.” Homer said the lack of penalties makes it difficult for his office to go after misconduct. “The absence of penalty provisions undermines our ability to investigate, expose and prevent abuses,” Homer said.

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