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Lawmakers pass ethics reforms without giving Legislative Inspector General autonomy

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Monday, June 4, 2018  |  Article  |  By Greg Bishop

Ethics, Campaign Reform, Transparency (12a) , Legislature (56) , Sexual Harassment (96) Bush, Melinda--State Senate, 31 , Cassidy, Kelly--State House, 14 , McConnaughay, Karen--State Senate, 33
Changes are coming to the way complaints about lawmakers and their staff members are handled after repeated problems with the system, but some say the reforms don't go far enough.

The House and Senate on Thursday, the final day of legislative session, passed a bill with a series of reforms to the state’s various inspectors general. Some of the reforms include providing more reporting on the number of complaints filed, investigated and pending. There were also some changes to the Legislative Inspector General position, allowing it to be a full time post and requiring a search committee to find a permanent LIG, rather than a temporary Special LIG, as there is now.

This all comes more than six months after the nationwide #MeToo movement exploded in the entertainment industry with allegations of abuse of power and harassment claims. That then lead to people in the halls of the U.S. Congress and statehouses across the country coming out with their own stories of harassment. In Illinois, 300 people signed onto a letter describing harassment and other ethics complaints under the dome in Springfield.

Task forces in the Illinois House and Senate got feedback during multiple hearings after listening to workers in the public and private sectors about their experiences. They also took suggestions on how to make the complaint process more fair and responsive.

Denise Rotheimer, a victims’ rights advocate who last October alleged state Sen. Ira Silverstein abused his power by making unwanted advances toward her while they were working on a bill, went through the Legislative Inspector General. Her outing of Silverstein also revealed a more-than two-year vacancy of the LIG position, which left two dozen complaints sitting on a shelf.

Thursday, standing next to another woman who said she was abused by a different leading lawmaker, Rotheimer said the ethics complaint process was flawed.

“You can’t have legislators overseeing legislators,” Rotheimer said. “They control the entire process. Who investigates, who does what, who says what. What gets investigated.”

The existing law requires the LIG to request permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission, a panel made of a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers, before investigating a complaint against a lawmaker or one of their staff.

Rotheimer is pushing for the LIG to be independent and for accusers to have certain rights in the complaint process, something she said is not guaranteed by existing state law.

State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a Legislative Ethics Commission member, said the system of filing ethics complaints was broken. She said House Speaker Michael Madigan has a conflict in asking for an investigation into his office.

“So in Mike Madigan’s case, Mike Madigan allegations, or findings, about Mike Madigan go to Mike Madigan,” McConnaughay said. “How is that not a conflict of interest?"

McConnaughay also said there’s a conflict with current special LIG Julie Porter, who had been interviewed for the job by Madigan’s attorney. The the LIG gets a criminal complaint, it would be forwarded to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the Speaker’s daughter, McConnaughay said.

“Don't think I see the conflict,” Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown said in an email.

“Julie Porter is a well known former federal prosecutor with impeccable credentials and no known ties to the General Assembly,” Brown said. “The [Legislative Ethics Commission] and the leaders have been searching for an inspector general since Bill Roberts resigned. All four legislative caucuses were given Julie Porter's name and résumé, and anyone could have reached out to Ms. Porter. One of our attorneys did contact her to determine if she was interested in the position.”

As to the questions of possible conflicts Madigan has with his daughter as the attorney general, Brown said, “I think I will defer on the other items since these are hypotheticals.”

The legislature Thursday passed several reforms, but the reforms stopped short of giving the LIG the ability to investigate complaints without permission from lawmakers.

State Sen. Malinda Bush, D-Grayslake, got last-minute ethics changes through the statehouse, but said they didn’t go far enough to provide needed independence.

“That is absolutely a key component that the Legislative Inspector General is allowed total autonomy,” Bush said.

She said she filed a bill this week that would require that autonomy.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, who said Madigan loyalists attempted to intimidate her for speaking out, said the fact that the LIG has to get permission from the commission to investigate is troubling.

“If we can’t even accept that there should be that modicum of independence, we’ve got bigger problems,” Cassidy said. “I’m very frustrated by that.”

Also Thursday, the spot left vacant by Skokie state Rep. Lou Lang stepping down from post on the commission that oversees lawmaker ethics complaints was filled by another lieutenant to Speaker Madigan.

Records show House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, as the new member. The position will again become vacant in the new year as Currie is not running for re-election.

Lang stepped down Thursday from his positions on the ethics and rules making commissions, as well as his deputy majority leadership post.