How to take charges of sexual harassment seriously in Springfield

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Alaina Hampton held this news conference in February to discuss her complaints against Kevin Quinn, brother of Ald. Marty Quinn and an aide to House Speaker Mike Madigan. She now wants the city inspector general to investigate Ald. Quinn. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Independence and transparency.

What’s clear from recent allegations about Democratic Party of Illinois Chair and House Speaker Mike Madigan’s political operations is that Illinois politics and government need open processes and policies for handling claims that truly are independent and transparent.

OPINION

The current processes and policies simply can’t escape the appearance of corruption. Legislative Ethics Commission members are appointed by powerful legislative leaders, who funnel funding to many lawmakers’ campaigns. Those commissioners then approve, in advance, many of the investigations and subpoenas the Legislative Inspector General can pursue.

But several bipartisan women are organizing and working together to fix that.

State Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat who co-chairs a Senate task force on sex discrimination, has promised publicly to consider every piece of legislation that deals with sexual harassment.

One of those bills is SB3389, sponsored by state Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat who also serves on the Legislative Ethics Commission. Chief co-sponsors are Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans and Republican state Sen. Karen McConnaughay, also a member of the Legislative Ethics Commission, which works with the special Legislative Inspector General Julia Porter. She was appointed after the job went unfilled for three years. Porter is charged with handling a backlog of 27 complaints and any new complaints filed before her appointment expires in June.

SB3389 would inject some needed independence and transparency into the legislative inspector general’s office. It says:

  • Ethics commission members, who are appointed by legislative leaders, cannot adopt rules that require the inspector general to get their approval before launching an investigation or issuing a subpoena.
  • Rules would be voided that currently require the commission to OK investigations and subpoenas.
  • The Legislative Inspector General may publish a summary report on an investigation after a finding that a violation occurred, unless a supermajority of the commission votes to suppress it.

That one bill addresses legislative ethics investigations overall, far more than just sexual harassment, and there is much more in the pipeline. “At least in the Senate,” Castro said, “everything’s on the table. If you don’t feel comfortable coming forward to the L.I.G because of the process or the way it’s set up, why would you?”

McConnaughay called SB 3389 “a critical first step.”

Another bill, HB 4243, sponsored by state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican, would prohibit public funds from being used by lawmakers to settle harassment claims, as was done by a few lawmakers in the U.S. Congress. Another McSweeney proposal, HB 4242, would require local government units to publish the names and amount of any severance granted to a public worker who has been accused of sexual discrimination or harassment. The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern that plan might expose a victim who doesn’t wish to be identified.

In the wake of harassment complaints about people who do work for Madigan’s political operations, the Speaker named women to a group to address the future of women in the state’s Democratic Party. He previously named a House task force on sexual harassment, which convenes again Tuesday in Springfield. The Illinois Senate task force meets again March 5 in Chicago. Those government task forces are required to issue a report by December, after the election, but co-chair Bush has said the Senate group was working to finish its work this spring.

Last week, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, called for an independent investigation into political organizations led by Madigan. The Speaker responded by saying he would cooperate and appoint independent counsel Kelly Smith-Haley to “provide independent review of allegations, conduct investigations and provide recommendations.”

But how can Smith-Haley be considered independent if she is appointed by Madigan?

For now, the best bet for political and government workers who believe they have been abused, bullied or victimized might be lodging a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as former Madigan ward political worker Alaina Hampton did.

And Illinoisans who value independence, transparency and equity in government, politics and private workplaces ought to watch carefully and be sure to weigh in on legislation like SB 3389.

Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director for the Better Government Association.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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