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Peoria native Michael McCuskey says he’s optimistic about new legislative watchdog role

Capitol News Illinois file

Illinois' new legislative watchdog already has a complaint waiting for him when he starts his new job on Tuesday.

Retired judge Michael McCuskey said that complaint could offer an indication of the type of job he's stepping into as the legislative inspector general. It's an office that critics and even his predecessors have described as powerless.

The Illinois legislature — the body McCuskey will oversee — appointed him to the post last week.

Former inspector general Carol Pope called the office a “paper tiger” and said lawmakers weren't interested in real ethics reform. McCuskey, a former member of the Illinois State University Board of Trustees, said he will talk this week with Pope to get a better understanding of the obstacles she encountered.

“I hope with my attitude, with my background and thinking I’m nonpartisan, I’m going to work to make the system work,” McCuskey said on WGLT's Sound Ideas. “Maybe I’ll fail, but I’m going to try.”

 Michael McCuskey previously served as a public defender and as a state and federal judge.
Illinois State University
Michael McCuskey previously served as a public defender and as a state and federal judge.

McCuskey, a 1970 ISU graduate, said it would have been presumptuous to talk to Pope about the office before his appointment. “In the next year, I’m going to be able to find out, but right now I can’t say the process is flawed or a paper tiger from the outside. I’ll wait until I get inside and see how it works,” said McCuskey, adding he’s optimistic he can be effective in the role.

“I’m a guy who thinks the glass should be half full,” he said. “I’m an optimist, always have been.”

McCuskey's appointment passed mostly along party lines with Democrats in full support of the Democratic judge.

Five House Republicans also voted for him, while 19 House GOP members, including party leader Jim Durkin, voted "present" to protest how Democrats pushed through the appointment.

Durkin noted he considered McCuskey to be “eminently qualified” for the post.

Republican State Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington voted "no" on McCuskey's appointment. The two state representatives in McLean County, Republicans Dan Brady and Keith Sommer, both had excused absences.

Democrats submitted McCuskey for the office after the bipartisan legislative ethics commission deadlocked on an earlier choice. McCuskey said lawmakers were under a time crunch to fill the vacancy because the office shifts to control of the state auditor general if it’s left vacant for 45 days.

“Both (parties) claim each other is the problem and I just happened to fall into the rabbit hole,” said McCuskey, adding Pope left one complaint unopened because she was nearing the end of her term.

McCuskey said he was interested in the inspector general post because he was growing tired of retired life.

“Spending over a year in retirement was probably the wrong thing to do, for me,” he said, noting he left the bench in 2020 before his term as ended because the courts were largely shut down during much of the pandemic. “I’ve still got maybe a half a tank of gas, but I have enough I think to make a difference,” said the 73-year-old McCuskey.

McCuskey is a Peoria native. He served as chair of the ISU board of trustees from 2008 to 2014 during a near-decade long run on the board.

“This is maybe the best thing we can say, we survived the years when got no money from the state,” he said.

McCuskey also a was member of ISU’s 1969 national championship baseball team.

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Eric Stock is a reporter at WGLT.