Editorial Roundup: Illinois

Chicago Tribune. September 10, 2021.

Editorial: What can rebuild Illinoisans’ faith in Springfield? Ethics reform. What won’t? Faux reform.

Democrats in the General Assembly seem to think a swatch of ethics reform is better than none at all.

They pushed through a bill that nips at the edges of Springfield’s decades-old culture of corruption, while leaving out measures that would have cleaned up Illinois politics in a much more comprehensive, enduring way.

A sandblasting was called for. Instead, they opted to feather-dust.

Republicans opposed this lip-service approach to the ethics overhaul that’s desperately needed in the state capital. But Democrats control both chambers and the Governor’s Mansion, and had more than enough votes to get SB 539 passed Thursday.

Still, Democrats say they’re shocked, shocked! at GOP opposition. Why, they ask, would Republicans try to derail any kind of ethics reform?

The answer’s simple. When it comes to corruption in Springfield, half measures won’t cut it.

So what’s the bill that Democrats passed? It demands that officials disclose more about their personal financial interests. It also keeps legislators from lobbying their former colleagues after leaving office, and permits the General Assembly’s watchdog, the legislative inspector general, to begin probes of alleged wrongdoing without the go-ahead from a commission made up of the very lawmakers the IG is supposed to police.

But given the scale of corruption tainting Illinois politics, that’s not nearly enough.

We have said before what Illinois needs when it comes to ethics reform.

Give the inspector general power to issue subpoenas and release reports on lawmakers without the ethics commission’s blessing. Broaden the scope of the inspector general’s mission to include alleged wrongdoing outside of lawmakers’ public duties. Add nonpartisan citizen representation to the ethics commission, so that the 4-4 partisan deadlock that stymies investigations can be broken.

Those measures are nowhere to be found in the version of ethics reform Democrats backed. Without them, the legislative inspector general lacks the requisite teeth to do the job right. Which is why, when she announced her resignation effective on Dec. 15, current IG Carol Pope said she regards her office as “a paper tiger.”

Backers of SB 539 are trying to convince Illinoisans that the measure doesn’t mean an end to ethics reform. They claim they’ll come back to it sometime down the road.

“Is there more work to be done? For sure. And I think that was something that we reiterated in the debate back in the spring, that this wasn’t going to be the last time we were ever going to look at ethics,” state Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, recently told the Tribune. “So I guess it’s just surprising to me that this strategy was employed by the Republicans to stop the bill from becoming law.”

Why not do it right, and do it now?

“I can’t think of anything more cynical, or that would cause the public to lose faith in us more, than passing a bill that is supposed to solve an ethics problem that has plagued the state for years … and then at the end of the day it changes nothing,” state Rep. Mike Marron, a Downstate Republican, said this week.

Marron is correct. Restoring Illinoisans’ faith in government requires both sides to set aside partisan politics and craft an ethics reform package that genuinely puts up a bulwark against corruption.

Illinoisans have grown weary of politicians who pledge their souls to strong ethics reform while on the campaign trail, and then conveniently forget what they’ve promised once they’re ensconced in Springfield. Trust in government easily fades when citizens view their elected officials as guided solely by greed and self-interest.

Regaining that trust is far trickier — but it’s not impossible. In Illinois, the solution begins with real, lasting ethics reform — not just the veneer of reform.

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Chicago Sun-Times. September 9, 2021.

Editorial: DCFS caseworkers with Spanish-language clients should be able to speak Spanish

For almost 50 years, the agency that cares for the most vulnerable children in Illinois has failed to abide fully by a federal court order to provide Spanish-language services when necessary.

It is a fact of life in a nation of immigrants that government, the courts and social services work best when offered in the native tongue of those immigrants.

That is why a judge may require a translator in court for a defendant from, say, Belarus. That is why voting instructions are offered in languages other than English, such as Spanish and Cantonese.

And the higher the stakes, the less our nation should allow an inability to speak or understand English to be a barrier to fair play and justice.

But when it comes to the State of Illinois agency that bears the heavy responsibility of working with children and parents in family crisis, that bit of common sense — work with the families as much as possible in their own language — too often is not practiced, despite a federal court order.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is required to provide services in Spanish to Latino families, as part of a 1977 order called the Burgos consent decree. But as the nonprofit journalism site ProPublica reports, DCFS has failed for years to abide fully by the decree.

Caseworkers who work with Spanish-language clients may not speak Spanish. Children from Spanish-language families are placed in foster homes where nobody speaks Spanish.

ProPublica first reported in 2019 that DCFS had violated the Burgos decree almost 300 times since 2005, and that number likely was an undercount. Then early last year, Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert conducted his own mini-investigation and found that the problem continues.

For 10 months, lawyers from Golbert’s office counted the number of new cases that involved Spanish-speaking families. Then the lawyers checked how many of those families’ case files included a critical document that indicates whether DCFS should be providing the families services in Spanish.

Of the 80 or so cases Golbert’s lawyers identified, as ProPublica recently reported, not one included the so-called language determination form.

Our message today is simple. We know DCFS has a tough job, working to protect and care for the most vulnerable children in the state. And we know state resources are tight. But in a state in which almost 13% of the population speaks Spanish as their primary language, it is obvious that more DCFS caseworkers should speak the language, and the agency should be doing more to hire accordingly.

At the moment, ProPublica reports, DCFS employs just 153 bilingual workers, though under a 2008 state law it should employ 194. Latinos make up about 8% of the 16,000 children in state care. Nobody should feel confident that caseworkers who cannot speak Spanish are fully on top of any case — picking up on signs of neglect or abuse — that involves a family that only speaks Spanish.

If DCFS can’t get there alone — if it continues to fail to meet the benchmarks of the Burgos decree — perhaps it is time for a federal court to appoint an independent monitor.

“When you have an agency with a record of recalcitrance, despite public attention in continuing to neglect its responsibilities, then that is an appropriate time for outside, independent, well-resourced monitoring,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told ProPublica. “Otherwise you’re not going to change the culture.”

State law could come to rescue, if only a bit. This month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a bill that creates a task force to examine the disparate racial impacts of DCFS policy on the families that enter the child welfare system. As part of that effort, the task force is expected to explore language, cultural and heritage issues.

Also, DCFS created a Burgos workgroup last year that meets twice a month to address compliance with the court, and monthly reports on violations are being produced.

The Latino population in Illinois continues to grow. The need for DCFS to provide services in Spanish will grow even more pressing.

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Champaign News-Gazeztte. September 9, 2021.

Editorial: Whoever is appointed, rules still the same

The next legislative inspector general will fare little better than the current one.

Whatever their personal feelings on the issue, legislative leaders are going through the motions necessary to appoint a new legislative inspector general to replace the outgoing Carol Pope.

Readers may recall that Pope, a former state appellate court justice, resigned in July because she lacks sufficient authority to investigate legislative misconduct. She described her post as “essentially a paper tiger,” because the legislative inspector general “has no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations.”

That accurate description, of course, raises the question of why the position is even needed.

In its current form, it’s not. And it’s certainly not wanted by legislators, who resent the possibility someone might look over their shoulders. But it’s a practical necessity, because the office provides political cover for legislators. Some may recall the sexual-harassment controversy that broke out in 2017 in Springfield. That’s when a variety of women came forth to complain about how they were treated while working or lobbying at the General Assembly.

Legislators were mightily embarrassed when it was revealed that the powers that be never bothered to replace retired LIG Tom Homer. After he left in 2014, the post was vacant for more than two years.

As a consequence, complaints from angry women piled up in the LIG’s office, because there was no one there to handle them.

To cover themselves, legislators appointed Julie Porter as the acting inspector general before officially installing Pope. At the same time, former Speaker Michael Madigan arranged for an outside investigation into the problem. But one thing they have steadfastly refused to do is give the LIG real authority to investigate misbehavior.

But Pope isn’t gone yet, because she promised to stay until a successor is named. Perhaps that’s why she is willing to serve on the committee searching for her replacement.

She’ll be joined by former U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon, who was named to the panel last week by Senate President Don Harmon. Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie picked veteran lawyer Jeremy Margolis as his committee appointee

As U.S. Attorney Fardon prosecuted former Gov. George Ryan on corruption charges, while Margolis, Ryan’s longtime legal adviser, worked on the other side of the case. Former appellate Justice Marcus Salone, appointed by House Speaker Chris Welch, rounds out the group appointed by the legislative leaders.

Pope’s term wasn’t scheduled to end until 2023. But she decided to step down after legislators passed a watered-down ethics bill that did not include any of her proposals to toughen current rules.

For example, the inspector general is barred from initiating an investigation until a panel divided equally between Republicans and Democrats approves. Her office has no subpoena power, leaving the inspector general only with the ability to request documents.

Completed reports are private, meaning the public is not supposed to ever learn details of wrongdoing by individual legislators.

Current law is a sham, providing only the illusion of oversight and not the real thing. The ethics law passed earlier this year is little better, a marginal improvement but weak by design.

But even that small step is in doubt, with legislators rejecting a minor amendatory veto by Gov. J.B. Pritzker that was designed to clear up a technical issue.

Republicans professed to be pleased the bill is in danger of failing. They mistakenly believe super-majority Democrats will pass a tougher ethics bill in its place.

But if Democrats really wanted tougher ethics rules, they’d already have passed them. What they want in Springfield, they get.

That’s why in the end, it makes little difference who is named to replace Pope. Her successor will face the same hurdle Pope did.

END