By Cole Lauterbach
Illinois News Network
Years of accused legislative ethics violations that went unseen by a state watchdog could go unpunished because the window to do so has expired.
News that 27 legislative ethics complaints sat unaddressed since 2014 has the General Assembly scrambling to appoint a new Legislative Inspector General as well as pass new laws that combat ethics breaches such as sexual harassment. But former Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer says the dozens of ethics complaints in the Illinois legislature won’t be addressed by whomever is next appointed to his old office. State law limits the Inspector General to a 12-month window after an alleged misconduct took place in which they can open an investigation into the matter.
According to House Speaker Michael Madigan, there were 26 complaints made in the last three years, when there was no inspector general to hear or investigate them.
“Most of them would be beyond the reach of the ethics commission at this time,” Homer said.
In the statute description of the Illinois Legislative Inspector General, it says, “An investigation may not be initiated more than one year after the most recent act of the alleged violation or of a series of alleged violations except where there is reasonable cause to believe that fraudulent concealment has occurred.”
Inaction on appointing a replacement may have allowed the offenders to escape criminal prosecution as well.
“If it’s true – that the complaints have been sitting on a shelf since 2015 and 2016 – that’s an incredible problem,” said Faisal Khan, former Legislative Inspector General for the City of Chicago and CEO of Project Six, a non-profit government corruption watchdog. He added that potential criminal charges may even expire since an investigation can take years.
“You’ve hampered an investigator’s ability to investigate a crime,” Khan said. “These people were allowed to run for office because their complaints were buried.”
The time limit for investigating the allegations of sexual harassment against state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, would be up this month.
Sen. President John Cullerton said in a statement that his office referred Denise Rotheimer’s sexual harassment complaint to the executive officer of the Legislative Ethics Commission in November 2016.
Rotheimer testified at a House Committee hearing Tuesday that Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, 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 Cullerton’s office but never heard back.
Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a member of the Legislative Ethics Commission that oversees the Legislative Inspector General’s Office, said she first learned of the 27 complaints Wednesday, after Rotheimer’s testimony. McConnaughay said she was told Wednesday that the complaints were not considered “active” because there was no inspector general to review them.
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.
Homer called the inspector general’s office, which he occupied for a decade ending in 2014, a “toothless tiger,” saying that there was little enforcement ability and even less transparency.
“Many of the matters never saw the light of day,” he said, referring to the lengthy investigative process and ultimate decision of making the matter public. Five of the eight members of the Legislative Ethics Commission have to vote in favor of making a report public.
“If the vote is 4-4, it doesn’t get published,” Homer said.