Earlier this month, yet another political scandal broke in Illinois when it was revealed that not only were there numerous sexual harassment claims involving Illinois state legislators, but the person who would have been tasked to investigate those claims, the state-level Legislative Inspector General, did not exist. Why? The position has been vacant for four years.
To compound this troubling situation, it was also revealed that 27 complaints (on a statute of limitations clock) against state legislators were buried—they’ve been on a shelf somewhere gathering dust, with no one looking at them.
As former Legislative Inspector General for the City of Chicago and current CEO of an independent watchdog group, I’ve tried to answer the question that many Illinoisans have been asking: How could this have happened? How can an oversight position remain vacant for four years? How can a problem so revolting as a culture of sexual harassment be knowingly allowed to fester for so long? After all, oversight is not a partisan or controversial issue.
The reality is that our tolerance of state and local abuses here in Chicago and Illinois has led to this embedded culture of corruption. For decades, we have not held our elected officials’ feet to the fire, allowing their comfort in their positions to breed contempt for all of us. While what has happened is not directly our fault, our failure to challenge our leaders in any meaningful way has brought us here.
As this scandal was unfolding, state legislators rushed to appoint a temporary Legislative Inspector General. If only this urgency existed before a crisis actually occurred, think of the situations that could be prevented.
Legislators have tapped Julie Porter, a former assistant U.S. attorney, to serve as LIG through next year. She has her work cut out for her.
As former LIG for Chicago, I can’t begin to fully explain how difficult the job is to take on the corrupt political machines of Illinois. Think of it as David versus Goliath, with David also being blindfolded and his arms tied behind his back.
The problem with Chicago’s Office of Legislative Inspector General was that it was meant as a shield for elected officials, and not a sword for taxpayers. It was designed to fail. That cannot happen again.
There are important changes legislators must make to ensure this watchdog office has teeth. An expansion of the statutes of limitation on complaints has already passed the legislature. This is a critical first step to make sure government incompetence and legal loopholes don’t get in the way of justice.
The LIG should be able to proactively and independently conduct investigations and should not have to ask permission to do her job from legislators she would potentially be investigating. The LIG also needs a real budget to be able to hire experienced investigators—ones who will not shy away from taking on some of the most powerful political figures in Illinois. She must be granted carte blanche access to documents, records and persons, and must retain the ability to speak freely and publicly about anyone or anything that prevents her from doing her job.
Simply filling a vacant post that’s sat dormant for four years won’t fix this problem in Springfield. It won’t change sexual harassment. Making the OLIG a legitimate oversight agency is the only way it will be able not only to uncover corruption and misconduct, but to deter it from happening.
Illinois is not a state friendly to oversight. Our culture, described as the wild west by many, is one that will take a sustained effort not only to break, but to rebuild. What gave me success as LIG in Chicago was the support of Chicagoans who began to stand up and fight back along with us. They’ve also come to Project Six. We have taken more than 100 complaints this year alone about potential misconduct and malfeasance in government. That trend must continue and must spread statewide.
For years, we as voters and taxpayers have played a role in allowing these problems to continue.
We tolerated the state Office of Legislative Inspector General sitting empty for four years. We’ve allowed a state Auditor General that is being investigated for campaign finance fraud to continue to serve. We have watched while more than 30 Chicago aldermen have been convicted on corruption charges—and in some cases, even elected them back into office. We have tolerated the arrest and conviction of three of our last four governors.
I could continue.
As an electorate, if we do not stand and demand reform, we remain in a Groundhog Day situation: More oversight positions like the state LIG will remain open, more elected officials will play fast and loose with all the rules and remain unchecked, and we will continue paying the price. But if we continue the pushback and call for answers at a sustained and fervent pitch, solutions will be realized. The politicians won’t have a choice.