DOUBEK: Lawmakers have just begun to address sexual harassment
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Raise your hand if you think state Sen. Ira Silverstein is the only person in all of state government who possibly could be accused of sexual harassment in the past three years. Anyone?
#MeNeither. So what happens now if someone else comes forward with an older allegation of sexual harassment or some other form of unethical misconduct? Or, what if someone makes an allegation about a misdeed that occurred just in the past few days?
It appears those charges could not be investigated. The legislation sent to the governor last week says the Legislative Inspector General can start a probe “based on information provided to the Office of the Legislative Inspector General or the Legislative Ethics Commission during the period from Dec. 1, 2014, through Nov. 3, 2017.”
So while lawmakers might have left the impression they fixed the problem last week of a vacant inspector general’s office, they’ve only just begun. To truly ensure #NoMore in Illinois, there’s a heckuva lot more work to do not just to address sexual harassment, but to fix an inspector general and ethics commission system that remains weak, secretive and politicized.
Each statewide office has at least one inspector general and the Legislature has its own, but no one’s been in it since Tom Homer left in 2014. Executive inspectors general work with and report to an executive ethics commission, while the legislative inspector general works with and reports to a legislative ethics commission.
Julie Porter’s appointment as a special legislative inspector general only runs through next June. She was appointed by the legislative ethics commission for the special purpose of dealing with a backlog of 27 complaints. The Illinois General Assembly still needs to appoint a regular legislative inspector general, and that happens only when the four legislative leaders agree and recommend someone. The current backlog was created when the office was left vacant for nearly three years because one of those four leaders blocked every name one or the other of them put forward.
State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a St. Charles Republican who serves on the Legislative Ethics Commission, said she wants to try to take the legislative inspector general appointment power out of the hands of the four legislative leaders. Democratic state Rep. Scott Drury, an attorney general candidate, also wants to push for an independent special counsel to investigate sexual harassment in state government.
McConnaughay envisions adding non-government people to the legislative ethics commission, and having lay people vet potential full-term inspector general candidates who then would be approved by commissioners and the Legislature.
The Legislative Ethics Commission currently is composed of four Democrats and four Republicans appointed by the legislative leaders. It takes five votes to get founded investigations published. That sort of political equation allows for misdeeds to remain hidden. The commissioners vote along party lines and few misdeeds see the cleansing light of day. Or people resign when they are caught to avoid being publicly disgraced.
“There were times I was frustrated,” the last inspector general, Tom Homer, who also is a former lawmaker, told me. “There’s always a sense of desire to protect the members and it often became a partisan question.”
Homer oversaw about 150 investigations and only one involving a lawmaker ever got published, and that was for someone who’d already announced she wasn’t running for re-election. Not all of Homer’s investigations involved lawmakers, but you see the problem. The commission is set up to block release of investigations that make one party or the other look bad.
What are some of the other problems?
- Homer and former Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza both say inspectors general need the power to publish all their founded reports without having to seek commission approval. Meza said he repeatedly introduced legislation to require the release of all founded reports, but it never passed. Commissions and inspectors general could work together to redact names, as necessary, but the public needs to know investigations are occurring and people are being punished.
- The legislative inspector general can’t suspend a lawmaker. She or he at least needs the power to both impose fines and censure lawmakers, Homer said.
- More thorough statements of economic interest need to be created that detail how lawmakers make money from their other jobs and from investments so the public can judge whether they have conflicts when they vote or speak out about something.
- Restrictions on IGs need to be lifted on what can be forwarded to a prosecutor for potential criminal action, along with how quickly it must be forwarded.
“I do not believe this statute was written with the accuser in mind,” McConnaughay said of the legislative inspector general laws. “To me, it’s written to protect the accused. It’s absurd.”
#NoMore? “If we don’t continue to ask questions,” McConnaughay said, “then we will never get to a point of putting enough pressure on to get something done.”
Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director of the Better Government Association.