Our view: Harassment, the Legislature, and accountability

November 16, 2017

The Illinois General Assembly’s scrambling efforts to regain control amid sexual harassment allegations would be laughable if the subject weren’t so serious.

The Legislature’s prior unresponsiveness toward ethical complaints is typical of the arrogance of power Illinoisans have come to expect from the Democrats in charge – House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

Twenty-seven ethics complaints were filed against legislators or staffers since the last legislative inspector general, Tom Homer, left at the end of 2014.

For nearly three years, those complaints sat idle in the legislative inspector general’s office. Why? Because those in power said they could not agree upon a replacement, and so there was nobody empowered to investigate.

What a difference a few weeks can make.

After legislative activist Denise Rotheimer, testifying at a hearing, accused state Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat, of sexual harassment, said she’d filed a complaint with the legislative inspector general’s office in November 2016, and asked why nothing had been done about it, the top dogs in the Legislature decided they couldn’t stall any longer.

The Legislative Ethics Commission, meeting in emergency session the first weekend of November, acted with lightning speed to appoint former federal prosecutor Julie Porter as legislative inspector general.

And last week, lawmakers OK’d legislation that would empower Porter to act on all 27 ethics complaints that have languished, some since 2015. That permission was needed because the usual window for acting on a complaint is limited to 12 months.

Also last week, House and Senate members were hurriedly given sexual harassment awareness training by staff members from the Illinois Department of Human Rights as the final days of the fall veto session wound down.

This all began as legislation to specifically prohibit harassment in the Legislature’s ethics code was being considered, in the wake of a storm of sexual harassment complaints in Hollywood and elsewhere.

Our concern is that Democratic legislative leaders have a history of giving the appearance of enacting reforms without actually doing anything of substance to advance good government.

Now they’ve been unmasked. Now the public will be watching. Now they will be held accountable – we hope.

Madigan, Cullerton and their majority Democratic caucuses aren’t accustomed to accountability.

Smug and haughty in their majority status, they have scrupulously avoided it.

They have spent years building and retaining systems and processes to keep accountability at bay.

We note that state Sen. Tim Bivins’ new bill to block legislators from serving on the state Legislative Ethics Commission sounds absolutely necessary. The Legislature has proved it is averse to policing itself. A better way is to bring in disinterested outsiders to do the job.

Going forward, a key question is, what will happen to those 27 ethics complaints, particularly Rotheimer’s complaint against Silverstein?

Legislative sexual harassment “reforms,” in practice, must be wielded with authority to stop in its tracks this abhorrent behavior toward women in the state capitol.