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Investigator wants tougher legislative ethics laws

Published: Friday, April 18, 2014 10:55 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, April 18, 2014 10:56 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Job recommendations and university application referrals from Illinois lawmakers should be tracked and publicized after clout-related scandals at the University of Illinois and the Metra transit agency, the General Assembly’s top ethics officer said Friday.

Legislative Inspector General Tom Homer also suggested that lawmakers adopt a congressional-style rulebook to govern such interventions: that recommendations deal in facts, not make suggestions of favoritism or reprisal and that legislators not work harder for a campaign contributor than for other constituents.

Homer, a former legislator and appellate court justice, released a letter with his recommendations just a week after he found no violations of law with job recommendations that House Speaker Michael Madigan and two other House Democrats made to Metra. Those surfaced last summer when an ousted CEO claimed political pressure on jobs and contracts.

“When insiders can lay claim to political spoils, the powerless and disenfranchised are denied equal opportunities,” Homer wrote. “Moreover, taxpayers lose when public funds are expended for expensive legal settlements and attorneys’ fees associated with scandals that arise from such activities.”

Homer also pointed to a 2009 admissions brouhaha at the University of Illinois, in which well-connected applicants were admitted to the state’s flagship university based on their patrons – and not always on academic qualifications. He called the once-accepted practice of political patronage an “anachronism,” replaced by laws prohibiting political considerations in hiring.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and member of the Legislative Ethics Commission, questioned whether such rules go after “the good people or the bad.” None of the proposals would have prevented crimes that sent the last two governors to prison or incidents that led to the indictment of two sitting House members.

Even if a lawmaker calls to check on the status of a university application, Link said as an example, “My name will be put on a list that I called and used my influence. What influence is that, just to check on something?

“It comes to the point, you’re afraid to talk to anybody, you’re afraid to ask anything, you’re afraid to do anything, because somebody may misconstrue it.”

Another commission member, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and a House deputy majority leader, said he had not studied Homer’s letter but also questioned whether the rules would have the desired effect.

“Everything that happens in government and everything uttered and every request made by an elected official does not automatically rise to the level of unethical,” Lang said.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, had no comment on the proposals and was still reviewing the recommendations, spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker would ask the Legislative Ethics Commission to review the proposals and report back.

He noted that Homer, who is retiring as the General Assembly’s first inspector general in June, also pointed out in his letter that appointed ethics officers for the House and Senate’s four caucuses are “capable and honorable individuals.”

Homer, inspector general since 2004, oversees a 1967 legislative ethics act he has complained is a “toothless tiger” with little transparency and enforcement. He used Friday’s letter to repeat calls for making reports of lawmakers’ violations public and prohibiting conflict-of-interest votes.

Currently, the law merely requires that a member consider abstaining from a vote that might benefit him or his family personally.

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