Sex-harassment bill puts Illinois leaders on the defensive
By John O’Connor
AP Political Writer
SPRINGFIELD — House Speaker Michael Madigan’s legislation requiring sexual-harassment awareness training for virtually everyone working in the Capitol appeared proactive, an effort to get out in front of a roiling national issue that enveloped Illinois days earlier with the circulation of an open letter demanding an end to a troubling Springfield culture.
But the Chicago Democrat’s proposal 10 days ago unveiled other problems, shortcomings and criticisms that put lawmakers on the defensive. There was the years-long vacancy in the office assigned to investigate the complaints that lawmakers had to rush to fill. Then came allegations of sexual harassment against a powerful state senator, which led to repercussions only after the accuser went public. Finally, sexual harassment isn’t mentioned in the ethics code.
Here are some questions and answers about the issue:
Q: Why the brouhaha over a problem no one denies should be eradicated?
A: Madigan filed his measure requiring training for lawmakers, staff members and registered lobbyists governed by the Secretary of State days after an open letter circulated, ultimately garnering 300 signatures, seeking action against harassment and intimidation in Springfield. It was in response to high-profile cases against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and others that surfaced and revived the #MeToo social media campaign from victimized women.
First, there were questions about the enforcement mechanism in Madigan’s proposal— review by the legislative inspector general, a post that’s been vacant for more than two years until Saturday when former Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Porter was selected during a private meeting.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown had said the “ability for the commission to do its work was there,” despite there being no inspector general. The Legislative Ethics Commission‘s chairman, Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, said commissioners can’t act on a complaint unless an inspector general finds validity in it and suggests a penalty.
Another commissioner, Republican Sen. Karen McConnaughay of St. Charles, said she was shocked to learn 27 ethics complaints — not necessarily alleging harassment — have been filed against lawmakers or legislative staff members since 2015.
Madigan’s bill was preceded by another from state Rep. Litesa Wallace, a Rockford Democrat, similarly calling for training of legislators, staff and lobbyists.
Q: Who’s been accused?
A: When the House Personnel and Pensions Committee convened on Tuesday in Chicago to consider Madigan’s measure, legislative activist Denise Rotheimer revealed some incendiary testimony.
The crime-victims advocate from Ingleside accused Chicago Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein, the majority caucus chair, of sending her inappropriate social-media messages, paying her unwanted compliments and making late-night phone calls to her while they worked on legislation last year. She said she told Silverstein she didn’t like the attention but felt powerless to do anything for fear he would kill her legislation.
Silverstein denies harassing Rotheimer but has apologized “if I made her feel uncomfortable.”
Q: What happened in her case?
A: Senate President John Cullerton’s office confirmed it received Rotheimer’s complaint on Nov. 30. Spokesman John Patterson said Silverstein was advised of the complaint and was told it was a serious matter that had been referred to the Legislative Inspector General. But without an investigator to investigate, nothing happened.
A day after Rotheimer’s testimony, in which she questioned why she never heard anything about her case, Cullerton issued a statement that Silverstein had resigned his leadership post, which carries a $21,000-a-year stipend. Patterson dismissed the idea that Cullerton played a role in that decision.
Q: Why was it so difficult to find an inspector general?
A: The inspector general is chosen by consensus of the four legislative leaders. Link said several solid candidates were approached in recent years but all have declined. It requires someone whose reputation is beyond reproach for part-time, contractual pay. Tom Homer, a former lawmaker and appellate court judge who was the first inspector general from 2004 to 2014, averaged $50,000 annually, according to state records.
Following Saturday’s closed-door meeting to select Porter, Link said he hoped her skills would help get the process to address existing complaints back on track.
Porter played major roles in high-profile corruption trials, including investigations leading to corruption convictions of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Porter left the U.S. attorney’s office last year to start her own private firm.
Q: Why isn’t there a clearer process for handling complaints of sexual harassment?
A: The Legislative Ethics Commission came out of legislation in 2003, the year former Republican Gov. George Ryan was indicted on federal corruption charges that ultimately led to a prison sentence. The measure was sponsored by then-Sen. Susan Garrett, whose lead co-sponsor was Sen. Barack Obama, the future president. Garrett, now chairwoman of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, agrees the focus then was on prohibiting influence-seeking accoutrements and government workers forced to do political work on state time.
The Campaign for Political Reform noted in a review published last week that the Illinois Human Rights Act specifically forbids sexual harassment, but that it does not include the General Assembly.
“This gap in the law leaves the General Assembly responsible for developing and promulgating its own policy,” the review said. “Unfortunately, the General Assembly has not provided a program similar to those in other state agencies, creating confusion about the reporting process for sexual harassment claims.”