Our View: Republican-backed ethics reform bill deserves hearing

The bill would allow the Illinois Attorney General to use statewide grand juries to investigate cases of public corruption among other changes

Illinois Senate Republicans have filed over a dozen ethics bills in recent years and not one of them has received a committee hearing. And as the spring legislative session wrapped up, the Senate Ethics Committee again was not scheduled to meet.

There is something wrong here.

Eighteen state senators are now supporting legislation that would allow the Illinois Attorney General to use statewide grand juries to investigate cases of public corruption among other changes.

State Sen. Donald DeWitte, R-St. Charles, is one of the four chief co-sponsors of the legislation, known as Senate Bill 1350. DeWitte described the bill as comprehensive ethics reform legislation that seeks to hold politicians (Republicans and Democrats) more accountable and give prosecutors more powers to investigate public corruption.

Current Illinois law allows the statewide grand jury to be used only in cases of drugs, gangs, and child pornography, but the bill, if passed, would empower the Illinois Attorney General to use a statewide grand jury to investigate cases of public corruption. That makes sense.

The legislation would also amend the state’s organized crime law to allow state’s attorneys the authority to use wiretaps to investigate crimes of public corruption, something the county-level prosecutors cannot do now.

It would also give the Illinois Legislative Inspector General more autonomy to independently investigate allegations of political wrong-doing, by giving it the ability to investigate and issue subpoenas without prior consent of the Legislative Ethics Commission, a panel composed of sitting lawmakers.

“The fact that our (Legislative Inspector General) cannot investigate a legislator’s conduct unless other legislators say it’s OK is laughable,” DeWitte said. “In order to restore the public trust, we must untie the hands of our LIG and provide much more autonomy so she can do her work independent of any other member of the General Assembly.”

The bill would also ban legislators from lobbying other branches of state government or units of local government for compensation and require legislators wait at least one full year, or until the end of the current General Assembly, whichever is longer, before becoming a lobbyist. This, too, is appropriate. Now, one day a lawmaker is a colleague and the next day they are being paid to ask them for favors. There needs to be a waiting period before the outgoing lawmakers come knocking.

The bill is common sense reform and no reflection on party politics. And that’s where we are now, given that the Democratic-controlled General Assembly is allowing reform bills to languish.

The Democrats need a good reason not to comply and give this bill a hearing. But there isn’t one.

If there is a state that needs ethics reform, it’s Illinois. And if there are any issues that are no-brainers, it’s giving access for more oversight of lawmakers and a longer runway before these same lawmakers can go from elected officials to making money off their access to their colleagues.