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updated: 7/11/2011 1:09 PM

State's ethics math does not compute

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

Remember middle-school math? Here's a word problem for us all: If 29 state workers are fined for ethics violations over seven years' time a total of $28,350, how much should that process cost taxpayers?

We don't pretend to know the answer, but we know for certain the wrong answer is the more than $2 million taxpayers actually have shelled out in salaries for the nine-member Illinois Executive Ethics Commission to adjudicate these cases.

The hard-to-swallow numbers were outlined in Jake Griffin's Suburban Tax Watchdog column this week.

Nine appointees of the governor, some of whom are suburbanites, are paid $37,571 annually to weigh cases forwarded to them after an investigation by the Executive Inspector General. Taxpayers have spent $338,139 a year, or more than $2 million total, not including expense reimbursements, over the seven years the commission has existed.

And over the course of the past seven years, only 29 state workers have been fined between $100 and $5,000 for violating the state's ethics code. That's 29 workers fined out of a total of 1,000 complaints a year typically brought to the attention of the Executive Inspector General.

Look, we know cases involving human beings, rules violations and ethics certainly cannot be simple. Justice more often is gray rather than black or white.

But it seems apparent that Gov. Pat Quinn ought to make a performance review of this commission and all state boards a high priority in his quest to help Illinois government live within its means.

Do we need a nine-member commission at all? Why? What about having the Executive Inspector General make the rulings that could perhaps be appealed to a board of three members who work less and are paid far less? What about just having the governor's appointee act like a judge so that she or he makes the calls, period? How are ethics complaints handled in other states?

Many media outlets have reported over the years claims of political connections among board appointees that do questionable work. We don't suggest that's the case here, but the productivity of this commission certainly deserves further study.

We never thought we'd be writing this, but perhaps Quinn and legislators should take a page from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and institute performance goals and measurements for these boards.

Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza of Arlington Heights is relatively new to the job. We don't question the need for independent inspectors general to investigate corruption and questionable ethics in government. We do question spending more than $2 million to fine 29 workers $28,350. What price, justice? Those numbers simply do not add up.