A proposal to create an inspector general for the suburbs drew skeptical reactions Monday, as officeholders and taxpayer watchdogs questioned how the position would work and whether it’s necessary.
But the idea got a warm reception from Gov. Pat Quinn’s office.
The report by the University of Illinois at Chicago found more than 60 suburbs and more than 100 suburban public officials involved in public corruption over the past two decades, based on criminal convictions or apparent conflicts of interest.
The proposal came from former Chicago Ald. Dick Simpson, who heads the UIC political science department and co-wrote the report. He said that while Chicago gets headlines for corruption, graft doesn’t stop at the city boundaries.
“This is not just one bad apple in the barrel,” he said. “This seems to be pervasive.”
Reactions to the idea of an inspector general were mixed, but it was met with derision by some conservative officials who said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan should be doing the job already.
“We don’t need an inspector general,” Illinois Republic Party Chairman Pat Brady said. “We need an attorney general.”
Jim Tobin, president of Taxpayers United of America, called the proposal “a waste of taxpayer money” and said anyone who took the job would be indebted to whatever political party was in power.
Yet state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat, who has successfully pushed for inspectors general for the Illinois Tollway, CTA and Metra, said such a position in the suburbs would provide needed oversight for hundreds of local bodies that now get overlooked.
“It makes so much sense to have an independent agency where no one is beholden to suburban officials to look out for the best interests of taxpayers,” Garrett said. “This is an idea worth doing.”
Spokesmen for House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Democrats, said the legislative leaders would consider any legislation but questioned how such an office would be run or funded at a time when the state is deep in debt.
As proposed by Simpson, the inspector could be created by state lawmakers, by each county or by a consortium of suburbs, and funded by 0.1 percent of each suburb’s budget to fund an office budget of perhaps $1 million annually. He called it a small amount compared with the cost of corruption statewide, which he estimated at $500 million a year or more.
Former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman endorsed the idea of an inspector general, as did Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, who has authority over countywide elected officials and departments but not municipalities, school districts or myriad other suburban offices.
The study counted about 1,200 separate taxing bodies in the Chicago region, including 540 in Cook County alone, which Blanchard said often operate with very little oversight.
The report identified six common patterns of corruption in the suburbs: officials with ties to organized crime; nepotism and patronage; police officers aiding criminals; kickbacks and bribes to public officials; large construction projects benefiting elected officials, their families and friends; and outright theft of public funds.
The study documented criminal convictions as reported by news media, as well as reports of what Simpson said were conflicts of interest.
As the most recent instance, Simpson cited a Tribune investigation this month that found the construction of a sports stadium in Bridgeview benefited political insiders while helping to nearly triple residents’ property tax bills.
Another infamous example was the 2001 guilty pleas of former Dixmoor Park District officials, who took bribes and increased the police force to more than 80 officers to guard a single tot lot.
While existing prosecutors’ offices could go after public corruption, Simpson said the U.S. attorney has bigger fish to fry in the city, while county state’s attorneys may be politically beholden to whatever party put them in power, be it Democrats in Cook County or Republicans in DuPage.
Simpson, who served on Lisa Madigan’s transition team, conceded the attorney general could and “should do much more” to prosecute public corruption, whether or not an inspector general is created.
Madigan’s office has argued that it does not have the authority to prosecute public corruption, as prosecutors do at the federal and county levels. In a statement to the Tribune, officials wrote that her office cannot convene a grand jury to investigate corruption, though it can ask local state’s attorneys to use their grand juries. The state attorney general’s office also doesn’t have investigative tools like the FBI and Internal Revenue Service, the statement said.
But the attorney general has worked to prosecute corruption when asked by a state’s attorney or when a state’s attorney has a conflict of interest.
Quinn’s representatives said in a prepared statement that they were “looking forward to reviewing the details of this proposal.”
“Strong ethics, oversight and anti-corruption measures are certainly important to the governor,” the statement read.
Study calls for probing of political corruption in more than 60 suburbs