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Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Michael McCuskey assumed his role of Legislative Inspector General this week, bringing 32 years of judicial experience to the position charged with investigating lawmaker misconduct.
“I want them to be a little scared of me,” McCuskey, in an interview, said of the lawmakers who appointed him on Feb. 17.
For the first time, the position of Legislative Inspector General will be held by a former federal jurist.
McCuskey, 73, has been a judge for all but 13 years of his 45-year legal career. He served as a federal judge for 16 years, including a stint as chief judge in the district.
He’s a 9-to-5 guy who said he returns his calls and has friends on both sides of the aisle. He’s faced murderers, corruption and greed during his more than 30 years on the bench. He’s known for handing down tough sentences for criminal defendants, earning him the nickname “Maximum Mike.”
McCuskey, a Democrat, is as free with his opinions as he is with a story.
He once appeared on a radio show and called the University of Illinois president and other administrators “gutless” for their handling of a student protest of an appearance of then-Gov. Bruce Rauner.
He’s unapologetic about two publicly-funded pensions he receives along with the paycheck for his new public job.
“I would have earned more in a private law firm – much more,” McCuskey said. “I feel like this where I need to be.”
He was eligible for a federal pension at his full salary of $199,100 annually when he left the federal bench in 2014. He receives $129,565 annually, $10,797 a month, from his state pension, according to the State Employee Retirement System.
In 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton named him as his pick for bench in the U.S. District Court for Central Illinois. Although his appointment languished for eight months, McCuskey was confirmed by the Republican-held Senate, including yes votes from then-Senators Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, and John Ashcroft, R-Missouri, who both later went on to serve as U.S. attorneys general.
That confirmation hearing was not as contentious as his confirmation in the Illinois General Assembly last week. The Senate voted along party lines, 37-18 but McCuskey managed to gather some support among House Republicans with a 77-16 margin of approval with 19 “present” votes.
McCuskey doesn’t hold a grudge against the naysayers. It’s politics, he said.
McCuskey’s new job as a legislative watchdog has been in the news. He took over for Carol Pope who left the job at the beginning of the year. She called the job a “paper tiger” without teeth to investigate wrongdoing.
The public perception of the Office of the Legislative Inspector General is that they are very powerful, McCuskey said, as powerful as a prosecutor’s office. But it is a work in progress, he said.
“How would I know how the job is going to function yet when I just started?” McCuskey said.
Despite Illinois law laying out a search committee process for choosing an LIG, the statutorily-created committee ended in a deadlock. Some Republicans complained that Democrats bypassed the search committee in appointing McCuskey, although no GOP members issued specific concerns about the judge’s credibility.
The search committee reports to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which ended up deadlocked on choosing Pope’s replacement for 91 days. Illinois statute states the office must be filled within 45 days of a vacancy, at least by an acting inspector general. Pope’s last day was Jan. 6 – 42 days before McCuskey’s appointment.
McCuskey said in committee that he would be willing to serve in an acting capacity, but in an interview with Capitol News Illinois, he declined to comment further on the matter.
The former judge is not a stranger to the limelight.
McCuskey drew national attention when he presided over the case of six students suspended for a brawl at a football game in Decatur. A civil rights lawsuit was filed by an organization headed by Rev. Jesse Jackson. McCuskey, who worked as a high school teacher and coach before he went to law school, upheld the students’ suspension.
And it was McCuskey who ordered a new trial for Randy Steidl, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of newlyweds Karen and Dyke Rhoads, whose bodies were discovered on July 6, 1986, in their burning home in Paris, Illinois.
When new evidence was brought to light indicating Steidl’s innocence in 2000, McCuskey ordered the state to retry or release Steidl, who was later exonerated and released.
McCuskey said he’s learned to be tough but fair in his time as judge. He considers as one of his attributes the ability to discern someone’s credibility. That, he said, will serve him well in his new position.
“I want to get to work,” McCuskey said.
The office currently has two complaints in need of investigation, he said.
If his contract for Legislative Inspector General is comparable to his predecessor, McCuskey will earn $275 for every hour he bills with a cap of $200,000 a year.
His predecessor in the Legislative Inspector General’s spot, Pope, earned $106,000 in 2020 and $75,000 in 2021, according to the Illinois Comptroller’s website. Pope, a former state appellate court judge, earned an annual pension of $206,505.