Legislative watchdog Michael McCuskey sees job as educational opportunity
Legislative Inspector General Michael McCuskey sits for an interview in his office at the Illinois Capitol Complex in Springfield earlier this month. McCuskey was nominated to a full five-year term in May with only one vote against his nomination. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Nika Schoonover)
Former federal judge was nearly unanimously approved for a full five-year term in spring session
By NIKA SCHOONOVER
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – After 15 months as Illinois’ Legislative Inspector General, Judge Michael McCuskey is moving to Springfield.
Since he first assumed the role in February 2022 – several months after the high-profile resignation of his predecessor – McCuskey has commuted to his Capitol Complex office from his Peoria home. Now, after he was nearly unanimously approved to a full five-year term in the final weeks of the General Assembly’s spring session, he’s hoping to move at the end of the month.
“In 20 years, there’s never been anybody in this office every day,” McCuskey said. “I’m here three to four afternoons a week, which will now be more than that.”
As LIG, McCuskey is charged with investigating complaints of corruption or other misconduct from members of the General Assembly or the people that work for them. The post was created in 2003, and all three people who have held it in the past have criticized the lack of power given to the office.
Shortly after being appointed last year, McCuskey sat for an interview with Capitol News Illinois in an empty office. He has since hired a full-time administrative assistant who is in the office five days a week from 8:30 to 4:30. His office employs two investigators, one in Springfield and one in Chicago.
He succeeded former LIG Carol Pope after she resigned and famously called the office a “paper tiger” for its relative powerlessness. In a July 2021 resignation letter, Pope said lawmakers didn’t heed her concerns while crafting ethics reforms in 2021 and said the bill actually weakened the office by preventing the LIG from investigating allegations against lawmakers that arise from outside of government service.
She also echoed other former LIGs’ complaints that the office must receive approval from the eight-member Legislative Ethics Commission to make reports of wrongdoing public. The LEC has historically been made up of lawmakers, although one former legislator currently serves as a member of the public.
Unlike his predecessors, McCuskey doesn’t seem to share the same frustrations that the office isn’t powerful enough. He says it’s too early to tell if it needs more power or not.
“I don’t know what the (General Assembly) should do, because I don’t know what I should do other than what I’m doing now,” McCuskey said. “But anything I can do to make this office better, I will.”
But he said he may have suggestions to improve things after he attends a one-week conference of all the LIGs in the United States in August.
“I’m going to get to hear what jurisdiction they have. And maybe I’ll come to the conclusion that there’s certain things we should have,” McCuskey said.
As a former federal judge, McCuskey said he knows he’s never going to do a better job investigating public corruption than federal agents in Chicago. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Illinois is overseeing several wide-ranging public corruption probes, including one against former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat charged with wielding his Springfield influence to enrich himself and others.
“We haven’t received a complaint of corruption in my first year,” McCuskey said. “If I did, I would investigate it and more than likely send it to the Northern District of Illinois.”
McCuskey’s regular office hours approach differs from that of his predecessors, who have all held the job part-time. Pope, however, noted that’s because there wasn’t enough for her to do to justify a full-time workweek.
McCuskey earns the same $275 per billable hour that Pope earned, which netted him $145,100 in pay in 2022 and $80,200 thus far in 2023, according to the Illinois Comptroller's database. Like Pope, who earned $106,000 in 2020 and $75,000 in 2021, he has a $200,000 cap on what he can earn in a fiscal year.
His near-unanimous support in May came 15 months after most legislative Republicans either voted “no” or “present” on McCuskey’s initial nomination, complaining more about the process than McCuskey’s qualifications.
That process calls for the LIG candidates to be vetted by a search committee that reports to the Legislative Ethics Commission. Per Illinois statute, the office must be filled within 45 days of a vacancy, but the full commission deadlocked for 91 days when considering the committee’s recommendations after Pope announced her intention to resign.
Democrats advanced McCuskey’s name to the full chamber without the search committee’s recommendation and he was officially appointed 42 days after Pope left office.
“It wasn’t about his credentials, or his integrity, it was just that we didn’t follow the processes in place,” Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, said in an interview. “And we were frustrated as a minority party and seeing the process manipulated so many times, we wanted to follow the letter of the law.”
Tracy, who sits on the LEC, voted against McCuskey’s initial appointment last year but supported his confirmation in May.
“In this case, there was a logjam,” McCuskey said. “I became the nominee, who initially was opposed by Republicans and now everybody’s accepted me. So I always say, give me a second chance and see what happens.”
The Senate unanimously approved McCuskey’s nomination in May and just one House member voted against it. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, complained more about the legislature’s handling of the LIG’s authority than McCuskey’s handling of the office.
“When we talk about ethics reforms, when we talk about anti-corruption measures, it’s always down the line,” Wilhour said in the May debate. “We all know what needs to be done, we know this office is a paper tiger.”
McCuskey said he prefers to educate lawmakers before any misconduct occurs. That includes Zoom meetings with the ethics officers of the legislative caucuses to discuss such things as when it is permissible to spend state dollars on promotional items.
“That’s proactive,” McCuskey said. “We have these meetings all the time telling representatives what you can and can’t do with state time, political time, and state money. We’re trying to prevent people from making mistakes and I think we’re doing a great job of it.”
According to Rep. Maurice West, a Democrat from Rockford and chair of the Legislative Ethics Commission, the office is currently updating its sexual harassment training and its ethics test to reflect reform laws that were passed in 2021.
“The LIG also made sure to mention he’s a resource for members and staff,” West said in an interview. “‘I would rather not talk to you only when there’s a complaint against you, I would rather talk to you to keep you from being part of a complaint.’ That’s the approach he’s taken.”
In fact, McCuskey said, this job has been like returning home. Before becoming a judge, he was a history teacher and baseball coach at Ottawa High School, about 82 miles southwest of Chicago. His sister, grandmother and cousins were all teachers, and, McCuskey said, his father never wanted him to go to law school.
“And (my dad) believed that teachers, ministers, priests made society better. He didn’t think lawyers did but I became one, he died before I became a judge,” McCuskey said. “So full circle, I think I’m back to where I’m supposed to be, teaching and educating, and I enjoy it. I have a passion for what I’m doing right now.”
While Republican opposition centered around criticism of the process in which McCuskey was originally nominated, they have overwhelmingly approved his performance in the 15 months since he was appointed.
“If we truly need to stand before the Illinois resident and say, ‘We are conducting ourselves in an ethical way,’ we need to allow ourselves to be under scrutiny by a person of high caliber and honor,” Rep. Jeff Keicher, R-Sycamore, said in the May debate. “That person is Judge McCuskey.”
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