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More questions than answers after first ethics task force meeting

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Thursday, November 30, 2017  |  Article  |   By Cole Lauterbach

Ethics, Campaign Reform, Transparency (12a) , Legislature (56) , Sexual assault, Sex Crime (96) Currie, Barbara Flynn--State House, 25 , Kifowit, Stephanie--State House, 84 , McDermed, Margo--State House, 37 , Silverstein, Ira--State Senate, 8
In the first meeting of the legislators tasked with reforming their own sexual harassment procedures, there were many more questions than answers. The biggest question was about who was responsible for lawmakers when they’re the harassers.

The Sexual Harassment Task Force was created in response to reports of rampant sexual harassment by lawmakers and others in Springfield. The first meeting was to be focused on defining harassment in their workplace.

Toward the end of the hours-long meeting, lawmakers asked advocates and officials about what they should do to manage the behavior of elected officials.

“Who are the supervisors of the legislature?” Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Frankfort, asked.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, defended the Legislative Inspector General position and the Legislative Ethics Commission’s role in the process of handling claims, but McDermed disagreed, saying that the commission is made up of peers, not supervisors.

“What we’ve heard here today is that it is ‘as above, so below’ in that if our supervisors aren’t involved and committed to this process, the culture of our legislature will not change,” she said. “I come from corporate America where there was a line of reporting. We’re in some murky territory here.”

The Legislative Ethics Commission is a panel of eight lawmakers, four Republican, four Democrat. Should the Legislative Inspector General find a complaint has merit, she would have to get the majority vote of the commission to pursue it. A partisan 4-4 tie means the complaint is buried. Since the LIG position was created in 2004, only four complaints have been made public.

The task force was created last month after Mothers On a Mission to Stop Violence lobbyist Denise Rotheimer revealed she leveled sexual harassment allegations against leading state Senate Democrat Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, a year ago and nothing was done about it. Silverstein still holds his elected seat but no longer holds his leadership position.

The scandal then blossomed when it was revealed there were more than two dozen possible complaints that lay dormant over several years because there wasn’t a legislative inspector general. Some of those complaints could be meant for other state agencies, but some could be criminal in nature. The Legislative Ethics Commission hastily appointed a new inspector general in the wake of the scandal.

Questions were brought up Wednesday about the power play between a lawmaker and a lobbyist that results in sexual misconduct.

“If a lobbyist feels that they are being intimidated by abnormal manipulation of the bill process, is that an avenue for the lobbyist to go to the [Inspector General]?” asked State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Aurora. “I can see, with what has come out with our Legislative Inspector General and the Legislative Ethics Commission being a body of our peers and if something rises to a criminal level there is an incentive to downplay it and not look at it in that regard.”

“There’s real limited ways to address your conduct,” said Ann Spillane, Chief of Staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “Public reporting of complaints against you are potentially much more powerful.”

Ultimately, no action was suggested. The task force will meet again in December and is slated with coming up with recommendation by December 2018, after next year's midterm elections.