By John O’Connor
AP Political Writer
SPRINGRIELD — The first person in two years to hold the post of inspector general for the Illinois General Assembly said Monday she took the temporary position amid Statehouse disarray over sexual-harassment complaints because “I can make a difference here.”
Julie Porter, a former federal prosecutor whose private legal work includes investigations and civil rights complaints, told The Associated Press that her aim is to ensure allegations of misconduct against lawmakers or their staff members are dealt with sincerely and seriously.
Members of the General Assembly serving on the Legislative Ethics Commission scrambled to appoint Porter in a special meeting Saturday. Emergency action became necessary following a week of head-scratching shortfalls revealed while legislators were trying to design plans to rid the state Capitol of a seamy underside.
“I can make a difference here. This is very important. When we look at our public officials, it’s so important that people have trust in them,” Porter said. “In a perfect world, our public officials would be beyond reproach and always conduct themselves ethically and legally, but when someone puts up a hand and says, ‘I see a problem,’ we should investigate promptly and thoroughly and impartially.
“That is not to say that I prejudge complaints to be founded or believe ahead of time that an investigation should lead anywhere in particular,” Porter said. “But it’s important that people who have complaints are listened to and their complaints are investigated and adjudicated.”
Legislation requiring sexual harassment awareness training last month revealed that no one held the post of the proposed enforcer. Then came damning public testimony from legislative activist Denise Rotheimer that her complaint of sexual harassment against Chicago Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein had been ignored for a year because there was no one to investigate it.
Silverstein has denied the claim that he sent Rotheimer inappropriate messages and paid her unwanted compliments while the pair worked on legislation. But he resigned his leadership position as Majority Caucus Chair last week.
Porter said, “I wouldn’t have accepted this appointment if I thought there was nothing I could do to get the state and the citizens out of this current situation.”
One problem she faces is that by law, the time limit for resolving 27 ethics complaints filed against lawmakers or staff members while the inspector’s office was vacant might have expired. Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, announced Monday a plan to extend the statute of limitations on pending claims.
Porter’s contract expires in June. She did not know the hourly rate of pay, and it’s not immediately identifiable in state records.
Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and ethics commission chairman, called Porter “a skilled attorney who has experience trying public corruption and fraud cases.” He said he was eager to work with her to get the commission “back on track (and to) address the complaints.”
The 45-year-old Porter spent seven years in private practice before joining the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, where she worked 13 years prosecuting financial crimes, child exploitation, and public corruption, including investigative work on the case that led to the conviction of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. She left last year as chief of the criminal division to start a private firm, Salvatore Prescott & Porter, where her work includes investigations, civil rights and employment complaints and commercial litigation.
She will fill an office that her lone permanent predecessor, Tom Homer, described as a “toothless tiger” for its inability to hold lawmakers accountable for conflicts of interest. He retired in 2014.
“There’s no one playbook for how commence an investigation,” Porter said. “You have to use the tools available to you, which may be more limited to me than what I had a federal prosecutor, but I still believe I’ll be able to do work that is meaningful.”