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Ill. legislative watchdog steps down

Published: Sunday, June 29, 2014 10:46 p.m. CST

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SPRINGFIELD – A former state’s attorney, legislator and appellate court justice, Tom Homer is ending a decade-long tenure this month as the first watchdog of the Illinois General Assembly – proud of helping move the state into modern ethics reforms but frustrated by handcuffs placed on his office and its ability to investigate and punish wrongdoing.

Since he took the Legislature’s inspector general job in 2004, Homer has fielded 163 formal complaints, referring 11 to federal or state law enforcement authorities.

Some of those ended in criminal convictions, although the law doesn’t allow him to talk about specific cases.

Twice in recent years, Homer, 67, has published open letters to the Legislature suggesting tougher ethics rules.

He believes it should be illegal for legislators to vote on matters in which they have conflicts of interest. He wants more descriptive financial disclosures, reporting of interventions lawmakers make on behalf of constituents, penalties beyond just fines for legislators – such as censure or reprimand – and public reporting of an officeholder’s punishment.

Among cases he can’t discuss is one last summer into allegations that House Speaker Michael Madigan and two other Chicago Democrats improperly intervened in hiring decisions at the Metra transit agency. Homer closed the case with insufficient evidence to find wrongdoing, but noted that he wasn’t awarding a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or a best practices award.”

It’s unclear who will replace Homer in the part-time job that earned him $70,000 last year. The inspector general is appointed by a resolution approved by three-fifths majorities in both the House and Senate.

Homer spoke to The Associated Press last week. Here are some of his observations:

Q: What improvements have been made in the ethical environment since you were in the House?

“Back then, the culture was much different in the sense that there were really no restraints on what went on here. It was common to have fundraisers during session ... Lobbyists would send cards in (the House) and you’d come out and some lobbyists would want to talk to you about a bill that’s coming up and (say) ‘Oh, by the way, here’s something from the association.’

“It was just a way of life. ... I think we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way.”

A landmark 2003 ethics reform banned large gifts to legislators, initiated prohibitions on “revolving doors” for lawmakers becoming lobbyists, stopped the use of government employees for political work, and enacted whistleblower protections.

It also created the Legislative Ethics Commission, a board of eight Senate and House members, four named by legislative leaders from each party, who must vote to approve the inspector general’s investigations and any decision to publish disciplinary action. A case in which a legislative staff member is suspended for at least three days is automatically published, but there’s no provision for suspending a lawmaker.

If a legislator is fined, it technically should be published, but Homer has been unsuccessful in getting the commission to approve fines against any lawmakers.

Q: As legislators, do you think commission members feel a need to protect their own?

“I have a very high regard for each of them. I think sometimes they’re put in an untenable position, the way it’s constituted. They’re there at the appointment of the leader.

“We have the ability to fine, but the ability to censure or reprimand is the sanction that’s missing here. They have that in the Congress and that’s probably the most potent tool that you can have.”

Q: With an average caseload of 16 investigations a year, should there be more than one employee in your office?

“Maybe the time has come to look at having a full-time presence and having the inspector general, if not be full-time, then at least have some staff. On 163 cases, I was the investigator, and I was my own secretary. I was it, and that isn’t the most efficient use of time.”

Q: Did you ever feel you short-changed an investigation because of that?

“I wouldn’t say I shortchanged it, but certainly the reality is, do I get up every morning and scour every newspaper? I do my best to keep up on things. ... But if I were in this job full-time and had a staff, I think I would have been able to delve into some areas that I wasn’t able to otherwise.”

Q: Does Illinois deserve the reputation it has for political shenanigans?

“The vast majority of these legislators that I work with are extremely honorable people, and dedicated public servants and I think they’re unfairly maligned in large part by being lumped into this idea that everyone is corrupt. It’s just not the case.

“What I’m trying to say to them is that, by opening up, expanding the ethics laws, it’s actually beneficial to those people because I think it would help shore up the public confidence in what they do and make their job easier.”

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Contact John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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