November 6, 2017

Illinois lawmakers appoint inspector general amid ethics, sexual harassment scandal

ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK

Members of the commission meant to handle credible ethics complaints against state lawmakers have picked a new inspector general after the office was vacant for nearly two years.

Attorney Julie Porter will take over the post that’s been vacant since 2015 following an emergency Saturday evening phone call among members of the legislative ethics commission.

Porter will be tasked with reviewing a couple dozen complaints that are collecting dust and determine if they’re worth further review. If so, the commission of eight state lawmakers will review the cases and determine if there should be further action, including possible criminal violations for a prosecutor to review.

"We determined to appoint Julie Porter as special inspector general to review the 27 cases that have come in since December 2014 through November 2017," state Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a member of the Legislative Ethics Commission that oversees the inspector general position, said after the decision was made. "She starts right now. She's hired as of tonight."

Porter is a founding partner at Salvatore Prescott & Porter based in its Chicago office and a former assistant state's attorney in Chicago. She will be charged with cleaning up the mess created by a lack of legislative oversight of ethics complaints against Illinois lawmakers and their staffs.

Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills and chairman of the ethics commission, said the hiring of Porter will get investigations of legislators' wrongdoing back on track.

"Julie Porter is a skilled attorney who has experience trying public corruption and fraud cases," Link said. "I look forward to working with Ms. Porter to quickly get the Ethics Commission back on track, address the complaints that exist and move forward."

It’s expected to be a mad dash when lawmakers return Tuesday for veto session to clean up the rest of the ongoing ethics scandal that’s rocked the statehouse.

It started last week when Mothers On a Mission to Stop Violence lobbyist Denise Rotheimer revealed she leveled sexual harassment allegations against leading state Senate Democrat Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, a year ago and nothing’s been done about it. Silverstein still holds his elected seat but no longer holds his leadership position.

The scandal then blossomed when it was revealed there were more than two dozen possible complaints that lay dormant over several years because there wasn’t a legislative inspector general. Some of those complaints could be meant for other state agencies, but some could be criminal in nature. There’s no way of knowing because there hasn’t been a legislative ethics inspector general to sort through the cases since 2015.

McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, said those who have filed complaints deserve to be heard.

"There are 27 people that have come forward with a complaint or an allegation of either a legislator or an employee of the legistlative body that could be anything," McConnaughay said. "It's not necessarily sexual harassment, which is the thing that everybody wants to jump to. It doesn't necessarily mean that. It could be anything, it could be nothing. But those individuals that do come forward deserve to have their complaint thoroughly investigated."

Most of the complaints are likely too old to do anything about.

Senate President John Cullerton’s office said they’re aware of a 12-month statute of limitations and hope to do something about it, possibly through legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady’s office said discussions are ongoing regarding changes and improvements to ethics policies.

McConnaughay said she’s also working on changes "to address the many, many shortcomings of the current ethics commission, to ensure there’s better transparency and more effective response to those who file complaints."

Commission member state Sen. Michael Connelly, R-Naperville, said in a statement they hope to have legislation that would add laypeople to the commission and send complaints to the Attorney General's Office if there’s a vacancy of the legislative inspector general's position.

A proposed House amendment to Senate Bill 402 would prohibit sexual harassment and require annual training programs to identify harassment. It also requires each governmental entity in the state to adopt an ordinance or resolution establishing a policy to prohibit sexual harassment, including how individuals can report allegations of harassment and policies for disciplinary actions.

As of late last week, there was no amendment filed to include laypeople on the commission or to provide guidance on what to do when there’s a vacancy of the legislative inspector general.