Mystery shrouding harassment cases called ‘absolutely outrageous’

Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago. | The State Journal via AP

State Sen. Ira Silverstein was ousted on Wednesday from his Democratic leadership position, just one day after a victim rights advocate launched explosive allegations against him.

But a suburban lawmaker who sits on the Legislative Ethics Commission argues that the General Assembly typically acts much more slowly — if at all — in investigating such allegations.

Not only is sexual harassment not even listed as a violation of the state ethics act, but the job of legislative inspector general has been vacant since 2015.

“I’ve been on the commission since late 2014,” said state Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles. “I literally have never seen a single case come forward.”

That includes the case against Silverstein.

The North Side Democrat resigned from the Majority Caucus Chair post on Wednesday as Illinois Senate President John Cullerton was planning to remove him from the leadership post, Cullerton’s spokesman said. Silverstein had been paid a $20,649 annual stipend for serving in that role.

On Tuesday, Denise Rotheimer, an activist and victim rights advocate, testified before a House committee that Silverstein used “power” and “mind games” with her as she tried to advance legislation to help crime victims pay for legal care. Rotheimer said Silverstein would call her frequently at all times of the day, while also making comments about her appearance. The two also shared constant Facebook messages.

Denise Rotheimer testifies before an Illinois House committee in Chicago Tuesday on a sexual harassment bill. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Rotheimer said she reported Silverstein to Cullerton and another state senator, but nothing ever happened.

Silverstein on Tuesday apologized for making Rotheimer “uncomfortable” but categorically denied doing anything that would rise to the level of sexual harassment.

Rotheimer is the first to publicly name a legislator as allegations of sexual harassment have run rampant amid a Facebook campaign and open letter detailing years of alleged sexual harassment in Springfield.

Cullerton’s office on Tuesday acknowledged her case remained an “open” investigation.

That left some lawmakers scratching their heads. Who exactly is investigating these claims when there hasn’t been a legislative inspector general since 2015?

McConnaughay, a member of the Legislative Ethics Commission, said she was told last week on a commission conference call that there were no “open” cases. On Wednesday she said she learned there are “up to 27 separate complaints against members of the Illinois General Assembly” — while outlining that she didn’t know whether that meant legislators or their staffers, and it’s unclear what kind of ethical violations were alleged in those complaints.

State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles. Photo from senatormcconnaughay.com

McConnaughay said she had previously been told there were no pending cases because there’s no inspector general, and a complaint can’t become a “case” until it’s reviewed by the inspector general.

“These complaints get parked in a file and sit there, and we don’t know about it,” she said. “It is absolutely outrageous. I still have no idea what’s in those. They may not be against legislators. It may be simple stuff, might be misdirected. I have no idea. I have no idea what’s in those from people who have filed a complaint and have never been responded to and some of those could go back as far as late 2014.”

McConnaughay said the privacy of those filing complaints should always be protected, but “there’s no reason not to provide public disclosure about how many complaints there are.”

Speaking about the sexual harassment bill during a committee on Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Madigan spoke of just 26 ethics complaints, saying there were three complaints filed in 2017, eight complaints in 2016 and 15 complaints in 2015. He also acknowledged the commission’s executive director has received calls from those wanting to make a complaint.

“Half the time the person doesn’t take any further action,” Madigan said.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown on Wednesday said there’s no way to know whether those cases are about harassment because they remain confidential: “I don’t know and I wouldn’t because the nature of the complaints are confidential.”

Special Counsel Heather Wier Vaught (right), with Speaker Michael Madigan and Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, at an Illinois House committee in Chicago Tuesday. The committee heard testimony on a sexual harassment bill to be introduced next week. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

To complicate things further, there is no specific language currently citing sexual harassment as a violation of the ethics act for state employees and legislators, meaning the commission can’t hold a hearing or impose a fine, Madigan’s counsel and former ethics officer Heather Wier Vaught testified on Tuesday.

Wier Vaught said new legislation would make prohibition on sexual harassment part of the ethics act — meaning it would become a violation that an inspector general could investigate and the commission could penalize with a fine.

“Because it’s not a specific violation to the Ethics Act there’s no ability for the Executive Ethics Commission to hear violations or impose fines,” Wier Vaught said, adding the inspector general currently can only prepare a report and advise whether they’re investigating. They can also make a report available to the commission for publication.

“What this bill does is to make sure that there is an adjudication process and an ability to penalize someone for this type of behavior,” Wier Vaught said.

There are general sexual harassment policies in personnel rules for legislators, she said, and anyone with a sexual harassment claim could go to a legislative ethics officer. They can also take claims to an inspector general or their own employer.

“There are avenues but it’s become clear that some of those avenues haven’t been clearly defined publicly so that people know where they can go.”

The muddied process, and lack of a legislative inspector general, has outraged many lawmakers. McConnaughay has called the commission’s chair state Sen. Terry Link to request a special meeting to discuss a new inspector general.

“I’m suggesting a former U.S. attorney, which would well suffice the General Assembly that is apparently unable to police itself,” she said.

She also questioned the entire process: “As a formality, complaints go to the commission. But we don’t hear about it. It immediately goes to the IG [inspector general]. The IG considers it, investigates it, makes a determination as to whether or not there is an action they are recommending. Then it comes to the commission,” McConnaughay said.

Cullerton on Wednesday also announced that he’s scheduling a sexual harassment awareness training seminar for senators for next week, as legislators head back to Springfield for the veto session.

The Senate president too said he “anticipates” naming an interim legislative inspector general as soon as next week to fill a vacant post.

“It’s our duty to fill that post,” Cullerton said. “I take responsibility for my role in that lapse, and I apologize for it. These corrective actions are a first step in changing an unacceptable culture that has existed for too long.”

Previously from Chicago News