Today we are waiting for details of how our state Senate will go about its impeachment trial of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Yet even with so much still unknown, this process already has reaped benefits for open government in Illinois.

Today we are waiting for details of how our state Senate will go about its impeachment trial of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Yet even with so much still unknown, this process already has reaped benefits for open government in Illinois.

On Wednesday, the House impeachment committee’s hearing was dominated by the content of a 2004 report by then-Illinois Executive Inspector General Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott. The report presented an extensive and detailed road map of how the Blagojevich administration systematically skirted state hiring laws for its own benefit. It’s a perfect example of what the inspector general’s office was created in 2003 to do: ferret out wrongdoing in state government.

We would argue that, had this report been made public when it was written — or in 2006, when its existence first became known — the pattern of abuse it detailed might have derailed Blagojevich’s campaign for a second term.

But the report became public only last week, and only after Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued an order for its release to the House impeachment committee. And as state law is currently written, all such reports by the Illinois Executive Inspector’s General’s Office will remain similarly hidden from public view.

What surprised us most about Wednesday’s hearing was not the content of the newly public report — though the various schemes it described were remarkable. What got our attention was the reaction of some committee members, who seemed to be unaware of the top secrecy that had been built into the law that created the executive inspector general’s office.

Discussion of the Scott report has, we hope, cast a bright enough spotlight on this glaring problem to finally change state law to allow public disclosure of these investigative reports.
We think there’s good reason for optimism on this front.

During Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, noted how the Blagojevich administration exploited the secrecy rule by shipping issues it did not want to discuss to the executive inspector’s office. He cited efforts to obtain information about the errant state grant to the Loop Lab School as an example.

“They use this inspector general’s office as a shield, not a sword,” Franks said. “They use it as a reason to not release information.”

Legislators have tried unsuccessfully for years to change this law, and even the inspector general himself has urged reform. Why have they been unsuccessful? We’ll wager an educated guess here that it probably had something to do with an administration that enjoyed the secrecy, and a Senate president who could assure that no legislative remedy would see daylight in his chamber. Just a guess.

On Dec. 18 — nine days after Blagojevich’s arrest — Executive Inspector General James A. Wright renewed his effort to open up the process by which his office operates.

“The Ethics Act places a lock of secrecy on everything the OEIGG does and knows. Aside from the head of the involved agency, in the vast majority of our cases, the only entity allowed to see our final investigations has been the ultimate jurisdictional authority, i.e. the Office of the Illinois Governor,” Wright said in a letter to legislative leaders including Senate President-elect John Cullerton. At minimum, Wright continues, the law should be amended to allow the release of final reports on investigations.

As we have asked in this space several times, how can there be any deterrent effect if the inspector’s findings are never made public?

Hopefully, though, the new Senate seated this week, the revelations of the Scott report and the emphatic suggestion of the inspector general himself will put this reform on a fast track. No future governor should have such a convenient, state-sanctioned hiding place for dirty secrets.

State Journal-Register