|Thomas J. Homer, Legislative Inspector General / LinkedIn|
With all the corruption and skullduggery in Illinois government, you’d think Tom Homer – the guy in charge of investigating wrongdoing in the General Assembly – would be a household name.
He’s not, a testament to how low of a profile he’s kept, to how little impactful work he’s performed and to how weak the existing rules are governing his job.
Homer is stepping down this month after nine years as the state’s first and only legislative inspector general, during which time taxpayers paid him in the ballpark of $350,000 for that job.
A lot of money, but not a real impressive legacy (to anyone other than legislators, perhaps.)
Homer is a total insider. He was an elected state’s attorney Downstate, a judge and, for 12 years, a Democratic state representative. He’s currently drawing two public-sector pensions totaling about $160,000 a year, on top of his inspector general pay, which last year totaled more than $60,000. And when his campaign fund was still active, he accepted money from and donated money to legislators who are still in the General Assembly – including Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago.) A total conflict of interest for Homer.
We decided to write about Homer not to pound on him as he heads out the door, but to look at the deficiencies of his office and to suggest improvements – because they’re badly needed.
Even Homer acknowledged his limitations, though he was unapologetic.
“I do think I did a good job,” Homer said in a recent interview with the Better Government Association. “Every matter that was brought to my attention was investigated properly. I took it as far as the law would allow me.”
It’s true that the office allows for limited investigation, weak punishments and virtually no public disclosure. But why wait years to call for change? He waited until 2011 – seven years into his tenure – to publicly suggest any reforms, and that was only after the BGA started asking questions.
“Could I have done more? Perhaps. But I think if I were to grandstand on it, it would have affected my credibility,” he said.
Credibility in whose eyes? Legislators?
To launch a probe, Homer needs approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is made up of eight legislators, half from each chamber, half from each political party. (Sound familiar? The Chicago City Council’s toothless IG works similarly; the city’s Board of Ethics must sign off on any investigation before it can progress.)
Once the ethics commission signs off, Homer is limited to violations covered in the Ethics Act. While he can investigate things like inappropriate gifts from lobbyists, campaigning on state time and misuse of state resources, he can’t investigate potentially bigger issues, such as bribery, extortion and personal use of campaign funds.
So what if there’s a serious criminal matter? Homer said he refers cases to law enforcement, but won’t talk specifics.
“I’d be violating the law if I did that,” he said.
But we do know one thing: he did little if anything to examine the now-disbanded practice of legislators awarding free tuition to select students wanting to attend state colleges. The FBI stepped in to investigate how the freebies went to the kids of political donors.
Very little about Homer’s office is public. Prior to a change in the law in 2009, reports detailing bad behavior were never made public. Since then, there have only been two published cases of wrongdoing. In one, a GOP staffer was suspended for five days for doing campaign work on state time. The other case found then-state Sen. Suzi Schmidt (R-Lake Villa) “engaged in conduct unbecoming of a legislator” during a domestic-related 911 call.
Schmidt, who wasn’t punished, recalled her meeting with Homer.
“I’d never even met the man before,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t even have to go to his office. We just did it right there on the rail [the area outside the chambers at the Capitol.] It was two minutes.”
Reports are required to be published if they result in a suspension of three or more days. Schmidt’s case was only published because of prior media attention, Homer said.
Nine years. Two published reports. For Illinois?
“The public is going to assume these things are being swept under the rug,” Homer said. “They are being swept under the rug, to the extent they can’t be made public. I feel I handled them correctly, but without the public scrutiny of it, there’s really no way for you to accept that.”
The next legislative inspector general needs more independence and broader jurisdiction. Every investigation should be published – with no redactions. And this time, make it an outsider.
At the end of the day, another toothless watchdog isn’t good for anyone, except the people being investigated.
This column was written and reported by the BGA’s Patrick McCraney. He can be reached at (815) 483-1612, or email@example.com. His Twitter handle is @patrickmccraney.