It’s ‘gut-check time’ for lawmakers on legislation to curb sexual harassment

SHARE It’s ‘gut-check time’ for lawmakers on legislation to curb sexual harassment
The Illinois House of Representatives in 2016.

The Illinois Legislature. | File photo | Seth Perlman/Associated Press

AP file

It was a surreal moment last week to sit in an ornate Illinois Senate hearing room with a group of young men from a championship Chicago high school football team and listen, with them, to two women describe in excruciating detail having been raped and repeatedly sexually abused back in high school by their club volleyball coach.

Everyone in the room was riveted to their words.

The coach, Rick Butler, wasn’t present. He repeatedly has denied the claims made by the women. The statute of limitations for criminal charges ran out before they came forward. Still, the women repeat their story, again and again.

“I want to stop it from happening to another child,” Julie Romias told lawmakers serving on a sexual harassment and discrimination task force last week.

OPINION

Two such task forces were created in the wake of the #MeToo movement and in the wake of allegations that some people who work in Illinois government and politics behave inappropriately. The movement also laid bare the fact that Illinois had no legislative inspector general investigating complaints about the Legislature for three years. The office sat vacant because legislative leaders did not appoint anyone to fill the post.

Now, with less than two weeks left in the spring session, will lawmakers fix the broken process within their own walls and throughout Illinois?

Members of the Senate task force co-chaired by state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat, are working on a proposal to beef up the Illinois Human Rights Act. Two other bills, drafted by state Sens. Karen McConnaughay, a St. Charles Republican, and Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat, attempt to fix the office of legislative inspector general and the legislative ethics commission.

The sexual harassment omnibus legislation Bush introduced expands the definition of harassment and extends discrimination protections to independent contractors. It would give workers two years, rather than six months, to file charges and sue. It would require reporting of settlements from large public contractors and employers, and prohibit non-disclosure agreements unless the victim wants one. Among other things, it also requires a panic-button system for hotel workers and mandates that anyone who works in youth sports be required to report abuse suspicions to the Department of Children and Family Services.

McConnaughay and Castro still are working on their legislation, but McConnaughay noted temporary Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter has agreed to stay until year’s end to finish investigating complaints from the period the office was vacant. The commission has agreed to hire a full-time LIG who would conduct ethics and sexual harassment training for government workers, increase the response time to complainants and create a more robust website, she said. The commissioners, all of whom are lawmakers appointed by their legislative leaders, also have agreed to post meeting minutes.

All those changes represent progress, but they don’t yet have the force of law. Castro and McConnaughay hope to push legislation through the Senate and House that would codify that and more:

  • The LIG should not have to secure an OK from the commission before launching any investigation or issuing a subpoena.
  • The LIG should publish summaries of any investigation in which a violation is found to have occurred so the public knows ethics standards are being upheld and bad behavior is being punished. Castro’s working bill would require a supermajority vote to quash publication of such a summary report.
  • Commissioners would be required to recuse themselves and be replaced if they are involved in any investigation.
  • A process for replacing the LIG within 30 days of a vacancy occurring would be set.

These are critically needed attempts to bring accountability, transparency, safety and justice to Illinois and to the halls of the Capitol.

But, in the next two weeks, will the women and men of the Illinois House and Senate get the chance to debate and vote on changes that have the effect of policing of lawmakers and diluting some of the legislative leaders’ control?

“We need to get something done so that victims and the accused have better protection and so that there’s a fair and timely process,” Bush said.

“I feel a sense of urgency,” McConnaughay said. “This is a women’s issue. How is it over 200 women (who work in the Capitol) signed a #MeToo letter and we’re having real difficulty coming up with legislation and getting it done?”

How indeed. Will lawmakers put protections and accountability in place for themselves, the women who testified last week and countless others in Illinois?

It’s gut-check time.

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

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

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