State ethics chief could oversee RTA, Metra, Pace

A plan to make the state's top ethics officer the new watchdog over all of Chicago-area mass transit got a boost Wednesday from approval from the full House.

Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, said the legislation is a step toward ending the culture of corruption that has spread to every level of Illinois government.

“We have to end government-by-crony in this state,” Franks said.

Franks said the legislation was in response to numerous cases of unethical conduct by transit agencies' board members, including the forgeries and unaccounted vacation pay received by Phil Pagano, the former executive director of Metra who committed suicide in May.

The House approved the plan on a 92-21 vote. Rep. Randy Ramey, a Carol Stream Republican, was the only suburban lawmaker to vote no.

If the Senate approves the plan again, and Gov. Pat Quinn agrees, too, Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza would oversee the Regional Transit Authority, Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority.

While Franks said the bill would do more to assure ethical conduct, Rep. Roger Eddy said it will add more unnecessary cost to taxpayers.

Meza, of Arlington Heights, has said that the additional responsibilities could mean 15 to 20 more employees — potentially $1.9 million in additional resources.

“Now is not the time to add one single nickel to the appropriations,” Eddy said.

Franks said the additional costs could be paid by allocating money the transit agencies already use for inspectors general toward the state, as well as cutting all benefits to transit agency board members.

Under the plan, Meza would have the power to investigate any case he believes is necessary. Quinn also would have the power to remove board members based on the inspector's findings. Currently, board members can only be removed if voted off by the board.

Rep. Sidney Mathias, a Buffalo Grove Republican, supported the measure but was concerned the transit authority may lead to other local government entities falling under the jurisdiction of an already stretched office.

“I just don't want to go down that slippery slope tomorrow,” Mathias said.