Ethics violation follow up falls flat

by Ann Knef |
Oct. 27, 2004, 6:27am

A worker who lodged an ethics violation complaint against Illinois Supreme Court candidate Gordon E. Maag, is frustrated with the state Office of Executive Inspector General’s lack of attention to the matter.

But the director of a political watchdog group said it's not surprising that the worker's complaint hasn't received prompt attention.

"Yes, the public should expect complaints to be handled swiftly," said Cindi Canary, head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "But we have to be realistic that this is a new government venture. There is a learning curve here. When the ethics bill was written it was the product of pretty intense political negotiations."

Maag, who visited the Vienna Correctional Center Oct. 4, violated a new state ethics law when he distributed campaign literature to prison employees, according to the employee. An official from the Illinois Department of Corrections confirmed that Maag was handing out political literature during his visit to the prison.

“I made a formal complaint verbally. I don’t feel I should have to fill out a form also,” said the Vienna Correction Center employee.

Canary also said that a sitting judge accused of ethics violations would be subject to sanctions by the Judicial Inquiry Board, not the state's newly created Office of Inspector General.

"But a prison worker who would introduce the judge as a canidate would be covered by the ethics law," Canary said. "Theoretically a judge is subject to abiding by ethics standards. However, the judiciary has a separate set of ethical guidelines and oversight."

Deborah Steiner, deputy Inspector General, said analyzing jurisdiction is the first standard that must be met in order for her office to proceed with a complaint investigation.

"It's somewhat of an oxymoron, that we have broad powers, yet they are limited to vendors of the state," Steiner said. She said there have been 989 complaints filed this year to date, but would not comment on those cases.

"We're not going to open our process to anyone. It is confidential," she said.

A sweeping ethics reform package which prohibits political activity by state employees on state property passed last year in the General Assembly. It was backed by Governor Rod Blagojevich who also established an 'ethics hotline' for the general public to report wrongdoing to his office. By statute, anonymous complaints are not investigated.

After calling the hotline several times and getting a recording, the Vienna Correctional Center employee finally was able to talk to someone who took her complaint. The worker said she does not plan on filling out a complaint form because she’s already provided the same information. The double-sided form asks for the complainant’s address, social security number and incident details.

Chief of staff for House Republican leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) Bill O’Connor said Maag’s activities violated the spirit of the ethics law.

“It is deeply troubling that a sitting judge would attempt to engage state employees on state time in obvious political activity,” said O’Connor. “Under the State Official and Employees Ethics Act of 2003, political activity by state employees during their work is absolutely prohibited."

When the bill was ceremoniously signed into law a year ago, Blagojevich said, "Today I am signing a bill into law that finally gives Illinois revolutionary ethics reform. We are not just tinkering at the edges, tweaking here and tightening there. Today we are re-establishing the primacy of principle over politics, and in Illinois that constitutes real change."

State Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton) said he was not surprised by the inaction on the prison worker’s complaint. Roskam had recently asked for an ethics review of state purchased radio ads airing in the Chicago area that favorably mention the governor. He says he doesn’t believe the governor is serious about ethics reform.

“He’s all about getting press, not governing,” Roskam said.

“It seems that the Governor has a hard time remembering to color within the lines. Who can forget the Illinois State Fair bumper stickers last year that prominently displayed his name, initially at taxpayer expense? Now, less than a year after sweeping ethics reforms, he has already ventured into this very gray area,” said Roskam, who serves as Senate Republican Whip. “Even if Governor Blagojevich argues that he has not violated the law per se, he has certainly violated the spirit of ethics reform. This smacks of shadow government, which Senate Republicans fought so hard to ban.”

According to the tenets of the Office of Inspector General, it “recognizes that the majority of state employees and officials are hardworking and honest individuals. However, when evidence of actual or apparent impropriety exists in state government, it must be effectively and objectively dealt with either administratively or through the court system. It is the goal of the Office of Executive Inspector General to heighten the trust of Illinoisans in the functions of state government.”

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