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Victims' rights advocate says sexual harassment law includes fines that could silence accusers

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019  |  Article  |  By Greg Bishop | The Center Square

Governor (44) , Sexual assault, Sex Crime (96) Lang, Lou--State House, 16 , Madigan, Michael--State House, 22

While some heralded the enactment of a reform measure bringing changes to how sexual harassment is handled in the workplace and in governmental ethics, a woman who helped push for the legislation said it contains a poison pill.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 75 on Friday. The measure requires private employers to follow guidelines on preventing sexual harassment and gives employees certain rights when reporting allegations.

Pritzker said the measure “strengthens workplace protections to hold abusers and enablers accountable.”

“Sexual harassment is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the state of Illinois,” the governor said in a statement.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, praised Pritzker for signing the bill.

“We must remain resolved to facing this challenge together and combatting harassment wherever it occurs,” Madigan said in a statement.

Provisions of the bill pertaining to preventing sexual harassment in the private sector include

  • Requires employers to provide sexual harassment training once a year
  • Prohibits employers from requiring as a condition of employment that an employee keep quiet or waive their rights regarding harassment, discrimination and retaliation;
  • Requires employers to report final judicial or administrative findings and settlements concerning sexual harassment or unlawful discrimination with the Department of Human Rights
  • Requires hotels and casinos to equip employees working alone with a panic button or other safety device
  • Bans employer retaliation for an employee disclosing, reporting or testifying about sexual harassment and sexual assault

The new law also included changes to how the state handles sexual harassment complaints against state lawmakers, according to a news release from Madigan’s office.

Among them:

  • Expanding rights for persons who have faced harassment or discrimination, including ensuring they can receive notice of their rights and the inspector general’s decision to open or close an investigation, testify before an ethics commission, make an impact statement part of the inspector general’s report, and review any inspector general summary report, suggest redactions, and file a response;
  • Giving inspectors general more time to investigate and file complaints with the ethics commission; and
  • Requiring local governments to provide for reporting and independent review of sexual harassment involving local elected officials

Denise Rotheimer spearheaded the effort to give those who accuse state lawmakers of sexual harassment or assault certain rights. But with the changes, the new law also allows accusers to be fined $5,000 if they divulge details of the complaint before it’s approved by a panel of lawmakers.

“The punitive language that is now going to imposed on the victim can be viewed as a gag order and it can also serve as retaliation by those who want to keep a victim silenced under the guise that they're giving them protection under these rights,” Rotheimer said.

While neither Pritzker’s or Madigan’s statements about the new law touch on the fine, the law is clear:

“A complainant receiving a copy of any summary report, in whole or in part, under this Section shall keep the report confidential and shall not disclose the report prior to the publication of the report by the Executive Ethics Commission,” the law states. “A complainant that violates this ... shall be subject to an administrative fine by the Executive Ethics Commission of up to $5,000.”

“We suffer that personally,” Rotheimer said. “It’s an added re-victimization that could potentially cause trauma and harm to that specific individual, which is not going to be beneficial to their healing process or recovery.”

Rotheimer said lawmakers don't face the same fine for disclosing information. She pointed to former state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, who initiated a complaint against himself after a woman told the media he harassed her.

That woman didn’t file a complaint with the state watchdog because she said she didn’t trust the Legislative Ethics Commission or the process followed by the Legislative Inspector General. Regardless, the Legislative Inspector General conducted an investigation.

A letter from the Legislative Inspector General to Lang cleared him of wrongdoing. It was released through media reports. When then-Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter was asked for a copy of the letter sent to other media outlets in September 2018 Porter said: “The letter is Rep. Lang's. He may do with it what he wishes, but I am not at liberty to share it.”

Rotheimer had urged Pritzker to remove the fine for accusers with his veto powers, but her request was not granted.