Lawmaker charging retaliation wants complaint system changes
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The process for investigating ethics complaints in the Illinois General Assembly is rife with “trap doors, blind alleys and loopholes” set up to bury politically sensitive grievances, a lawmaker who claims retaliation from the House speaker said Thursday.
Rep. Kelly Cassidy called for an overhaul of the Legislative Ethics Commission, the same panel to which House Speaker Michael Madigan turned this week. The powerful Chicago Democrat asked the legislative inspector general to open an investigation into Cassidy’s claim that her outspoken stance on rooting out sexual harassment in the Capitol was met by Madigan allies making her employment with the Cook County sheriff difficult. She has said she was forced to resign the part-time position.
Under the current process, the legislative inspector general, who works independently from the ethics commission, cannot conduct an investigation into a complaint without the ethics commission’s permission. The commission is composed of eight state legislators — four Democratic and four Republican.
“The flaws in the process don’t stop there, though,” Cassidy, a seven-year Democratic legislator from Chicago, said in a news release. “It is riddled with trap doors, blind alleys and loopholes designed to allow political consideration to bury any complaint that is politically inconvenient.”
She noted that neither the inspector general nor the commission is required to share key information about complaints, investigations or findings, and that the commission’s meeting minutes are secret. The inspector general issues quarterly reports to the commission , but they include only numbers of complaints filed, completed and pending. Cassidy noted the legislative members of the commission can reject an investigation or its findings and there’s no process for breaking a partisan tie vote.
“It stands out as really significant that Illinois is the only state that feels the need to have that level of control over what is supposed to be an independent inspector general,” Cassidy said in an interview.
Cassidy led the call last winter for a third-party probe of Madigan’s handling of sexual-harassment complaints against two employees of his political campaigns, who were fired as their cases were becoming public. Cassidy said the sheriff’s office, which employed her at the time, received an ominous call shortly after that from Madigan’s chief of staff. And last week, the sponsor of legislation proposed by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, confronted her about her opposition to the legislation.
Cassidy said she then felt she had no choice but to resign from Dart’s office. Madigan denied involvement and requested the investigation into Cassidy’s claim.
Sen. Terry Link, a Vernon Hills Democrat who is ethics commission chairman and a member of the panel since its establishment 15 years ago, said the commission has never denied an inspector general’s request for an investigation. The inspector general provides the commission with the circumstances of the complaint without naming names.
“We make the decision,” Link said. “You want to make sure that somebody (an inspector) doesn’t go rogue. You’ve got to have a reason to investigate. There’s got to be a complaint, then a reason.”
But the plan to remove the commission permission from the process has been put into legislation by Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat and ethics commission member. It likely will be part of a package of measures introduced next week by task forces in the House and Senate studying remedies to sexual harassment.
The co-chairwoman of the House task force, Springfield Republican Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, said several of the issues involve investigative independence, transparency, and clearer rules and guidelines.
The legislative inspector general’s post has been a source of embarrassment for years. The last full-time inspector general, retired state Rep. and Circuit Judge Thomas Homer, called it a “toothless tiger” in 2013 and said it needed to be strengthened to have an impact.
The role sat empty, with complaints going unattended, for several years before its vacancy became painfully public last fall as lawmakers responded to the national #MeToo movement, which highlighted alleged inappropriate behavior from powerful men in media, politics and other industries.
Victims’ rights advocate Denise Rotheimer asked a House committee why her complaints of harassment against Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat, had gone unanswered for a year. Lawmakers then scrambled to appoint a temporary inspector general, former prosecutor Julie Porter of Chicago, who found no harassment by Silverstein but said he acted inappropriately. Silverstein lost a bid for re-election in the March Democratic primary.
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