By Greg Bishop & Cole Lauterbach
Illinois News Network
The 27 complaint files stored in the vacant Legislative Inspector General’s Office could contain allegations of criminal offenses, sexual harassment or almost anything, but no one in state government seems to know because no investigations have been launched.
“I have no way of knowing,” state Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a member of the Legislative Ethics Commission, said Thursday. “It could be anything. They could be anything. Anything is possible, because again, when we don’t know what’s in those complaints.”
The Legislative Ethics Commission oversees the Legislative Inspector General’s Office, which is responsible for investigating complaints against lawmakers and their staffs. But the position of inspector general hasn’t been filled since 2014. As a result, all new complaints filed since then have gone uninvestigated.
“I’m appalled,” said Faisal Khan, former Legislative Inspector General for the City of Chicago. “There’s absolutely no reason these complaints should have been put on a shelf for any reason.”
Khan, who is now the CEO of government watchdog group Project Six, says those complaints should have been forwarded to other authorities that could have resolved some of those issues.
“The fact that they weren’t, (it) sends a troubling message to taxpayers that they weren’t really interested in what they had to say,” he said.
McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, says she feels ethics commissioners were misled because IGO administrative staff repeatedly told them there were no active cases.
“The executive director in his regular reports indicates there’s no open cases,” McConnaughay said. “We’re dealing with semantics at that point. The reality is that there are 27 complaints that haven’t become cases yet because there’s no inspector general to give those complaints to in order to open a file and create a case. … But not only that, but also why is it that the commission was misled into thinking there were no complaints.”
The uninvestigated complaints came to light after a witness claimed in a House committee hearing Tuesday that she filed a sexual harassment complaint against Chicago Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein a year ago but never heard back about the accusation. Lobbyist Denise Rotheimer, a crime victim advocate, said Silverstein repeatedly made inappropriate comments to her, harassed her on Facebook and in telephone calls as she tried to advance legislation in Springfield. She filed the complaint with Senate President John Cullerton’s office, who referred it to the vacant Inspector General’s Office.
Silverstein has since said he apologized if he made Rotheimer feel uncomfortable but denied the sexual harassment charges. Regardless, Cullerton stripped him of his leadership position Wednesday in the Senate Democratic Caucus, about a year after Rotheimer filed her complaint.
Tuesday’s hearing was called by House Speaker Michael Madigan after more than 300 Illinois women with ties to state government signed a #MeToo letter demanding a change in culture in Springfield that they say allows rampant sexual harassment to occur under a veil of secrecy. The national #MeToo movement started last month after dozens of women came forward to make sexual harassment and rape allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Madigan called the hearing to fast-track a measure that would require everyone in state government to undergo sexual harassment training.
But another lawmaker who serves on the Legislative Ethics Commission, Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, blamed Madigan for the crisis. On his Facebook page, Hays said he and another ethics commissioner, Rep. Norine Hammond, pressed for the inspector general position to be filled.
“My read on the matter is that the Speaker has thwarted efforts to finalize this dynamic,” Hays said. “No rationale for foot-dragging on this matter is acceptable. The length of time that the position has remained unoccupied is absurd.”
The speaker’s office has denied Hays’ claim.
Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, said the only reason Tuesday’s hearing on sexual harassment was held was because of political necessity.
“The charges of sexual harassment recently brought to light by Denise Rotheimer went unheard for a year,” Ives said in a statement. “She was forced to suffer Senator Silverstein’s unwanted advances for a year. It was only out of political necessity that she was given a hearing at all.”
McConnaughay is calling for an emergency meeting of the Legislative Ethics Commission to address the complaints and what she called serious flaws in the process. Due to state law, the commission hearings are all private.
“I have made it very clear to the chairman of the commission, Terry Link, I’ve made it clear to my leader. I’ve made it very clear in my public comments that this absolutely has to become the top priority, that this absolutely has to be addressed immediately,” McConnaughay said.
McConnaughy said she’s working with others to draft legislation to address the many shortcomings of the current ethics commission to ensure there’s better transparency and more effective response to those who file complaints.
Cullerton’s office said Wednesday they hope to have an interim inspector general appointed next week.
While the latest allegations are of sexual harassment, the office also investigates conflicts of interest or abuses of power. The last investigation conducted by then Inspector General Thomas J. Homer led to the suspension of a legislative assistant to state Sen. Jaqueline Collins, D-Chicago, for “prohibited political activities.”