SPRINGFIELD (Illinois News Network) — Anti-sexual harassment advocates, workplace harassment lawyers, even lawmakers themselves say stories of a rampant sexism and harassment culture under the dome in Springfield show that legislators are incapable of policing themselves. A new bill could provide an answer to that problem.
The Legislative Ethics Commission is a panel of lawmakers, four Democrat, four Republican, that oversees new Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter, lawmakers’ ethics watchdog. Porter was appointed after the office went vacant for years, all while accumulating unaddressed complaints. If Porter brings commissioners a report she wishes to make public and pursue, they must vote to allow that. A 4-4, party-line vote means the complaint remains closed to public disclosure.
In the weeks following the explosive allegations of harassment, several from inside and outside the Capitol have said that the Legislative Ethics Commission’s role in complaints should be re-examined.
Anti-violence advocate Denise Rotheimer is so far the only one to come forth and publicly name her alleged harasser, State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago). Many of the women, Rotheimer said, don’t come forward because of the Legislative Ethics Commission and its hesitance to make complaints public.
“A split decision keeps the outcome, even the complaint, secret,” Rotheimer said. “It’s designed to protect the accused, especially where party is concerned.”
State Senator and former Lee County Sheriff Tim Bivins (R-Dixon) introduced legislation last week that would remove the lawmakers from the commission and replace them with independent citizens qualified to hear complaints. It would prohibit individuals who have participated in any political activity in the past 10 years from sitting on the commission.
“Legislators shouldn’t sit in judgement of other legislators,” Bivins said. “I totally get why more don’t come forward until they have more assurances that their voice will be heard and that they will get justice and fair dealing with their complaints.”
Professor Michael LeRoy of the School of Labor and Employment Relations and College of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said Bivins’ language clearly defining political involvement as a disqualifying factor is a strong provision.
“This bill offers a substantial improvement over the current process by creating genuine integrity standards and also political independence,” he said.
“They would see that the fox has been removed from the henhouse,” Rotheimer said of Bivins’ legislation. “That would give [victims] confidence to move forward.”
Bivins served a term on the commission that ended in 2015. He said former Legislative Inspector General Tom J. Homer was great but was frustrated with the process and the lack of jurisdiction that the office entailed.
“He was very frustrated in that his hands were tied, and he couldn’t do what he wanted,” he said.
Bivins fears that legislative leaders will put his bill on hold, deferring to the newly formed task force to officially suggest the change to the Ethics Commission. The Sexual Harassment Task Force was given a deadline of December 2018 – one month after next year’s pivotal election – to release their recommendations. Members appointed to the task force have expressed interest in releasing recommendations on a rolling basis.
Since 2004, the commission has allowed only four complaints to be made public out of the dozens that were filed over the years. In an earlier interview with Illinois News Network, Homer said that the office received an average of two dozen complaints annually.
House Majority Leader Lou Lang (D-Skokie) who previously chaired the Legislative Ethics Commission and who remains a member, did not respond to requests for comment.
Written by Cole Lauterbach. Lauterbach reports on Illinois government and statewide issues for INN. Lauterbach has managed and produced shows for news/talk radio stations in both Bloomington/Normal and Peoria, and created award-winning programs for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
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