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Illinois lawmakers on sexual harassment: Too little, too late

Belleville News Democrat

Tuesday, November 7, 2017  |  Editorial  |  By The Editorial Board

Legislature (56) , Sexual Harassment (96)
We’ll give our state lawmakers this: They’re really good at looking out for themselves, as well as waiting for things to reach crisis level before they take action on something.

The latest example is the embarrassing sexual harassment scandal in Springfield.

Last week, more than 130 people signed onto a letter circulated by women involved in Illinois politics that alleges an epidemic of sexual harassment at the statehouse. Also last week, a lobbyist said she had been sexually harassed by a state senator from Chicago who was working on a bill that she wanted passed. And later in the week, we learned that there is a backlog of 27 ethics complaints that have been filed against state lawmakers or their staffers, though we don’t know the nature of those complaints.

Those 27 complaints have not been addressed because state lawmakers have left vacant — for three years — the position of legislative inspector general, who is supposed to investigate such complaints. They can find money and people to fill 75,000 state jobs, but they can’t find one person to fill the one position that keeps an eye on the legislators themselves? Not even one of their political buddies?

Not that having someone in the job these past three years would have mattered. The last inspector general, in a 10-year period, investigated 150 complaints, but only four of them resulted in findings of misconduct. Two legislative staffers were given disciplinary slaps on the wrist, and one staffer was suspended for 30 days. In the only finding of misconduct against a legislator, the inspector general found that a senator engaged in “unbecoming” conduct stemming from domestic calls at her home. There was no sanction, because the law doesn’t allow one for “unbecoming” conduct.

After last week’s revelations shined a bright light on Illinois lawmakers, and left voters wondering if the statehouse has become a frat house, the legislators suddenly decided there was a full-blown emergency. The job had been vacant for three years, but suddenly they needed a legislative inspector general right now! So on Saturday, during a private meeting, they hired a former federal prosecutor, Julie B. Porter, as inspector general.

As lawmakers return to Springfield this week, they’ll consider legislation filed by House Speaker Mike Madigan that would require legislators to complete sexual harassment training. Maybe they’ll have to watch a video? We’ve received press releases supporting the measure from two of our local lawmakers, Katie Stuart and LaToya Greenwood, both newcomers to the legislature. But we haven’t heard much on the issue from the other lawmakers who represent the metro-east, some of whom have been in office for many years but apparently weren’t aware of the problem.

As usual with our state leaders, they’ve done too little, too late.

For starters, they need to give their inspector general some real authority. Another good step would be to make public any complaints that are made against lawmakers – so voters can know who the creeps are. They also should put some real penalties in the law that contains the ethical code of conduct for legislators. As it stands now, that law says the code is “intended only as guides to legislator conduct, and not as rules meant to be enforced by disciplinary action.”

In other words, they’re just suggestions for lawmakers’ behavior. In a statehouse that’s been plagued with corruption, and now sexual harassment complaints, we know how well those suggestions have worked.