November 8, 2017

GOP lawmakers call for overhaul of legislative ethics review system

ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK

In the wake of a sexual harassment and ethics scandal that has rocked the Capitol in Springfield, Republican lawmakers from both chambers are calling for a complete overhaul of the legislative ethics review system.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Reps. Grant Wehrli, Keith Wheeler and Mark Batinick introduced legislation they say will help fix a broken system that holds no one accountable.

House Bill 4151 incorporates changes recommended in 2014 by former Legislative Inspector General Tom Homer.

"There has been broad agreement on the need for these reforms for three years, but they have yet to be enacted," Wehrli, R-Naperville, said. "We need to move forward."

The new legislation seeks to strengthen conflict of interest provisions in the state's ethics law, increase administrative penalties to up to $25,000 from $5,000 for violations, and change how Legislative Ethics Commission members are appointed.

The ethics commission oversees the legislative inspector general, a position that, until Saturday, was vacant for two years as 27 complaints went uninvestigated.

Currently, the four caucus leaders appoint the members of the Ethics Commission. Under the new legislation, leadership would be removed from the process. Instead, each caucus would have two members randomly selected and serve shorter terms.

"It would closely resemble a grand jury or a jury in a normal court of law to where people are randomly selected," Wehrli said. "So each caucus would have two members selected to serve for a total of eight for a total of 60 days. They would be required to adjudicate any complaints within those 60 days and then a new legislative ethics commission would be seated."

The legislation was introduced a week after a House committee hearing where a lobbyist said she filed a sexual harassment complaint against state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, a year ago, but nothing ever came of it.

The next day, it was revealed that the lobbyist's complaint and 26 others went uninvestigated because of the vacancy, and that a one-year statute of limitations likely expired on many of the complaints.

In the Senate, Rep. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, also called on a complete overhaul during discussion to create a Senate task force on sexual harassment.

"Had the Ethics Commission been in a position to do its job, we wouldn't have to backtrack and create an exception to a statute of limitations in order to properly hear complaints that we were misled in thinking that they did not exist when, in reality, we have a backlog of 27 complaints over the last two to three years," McConnaughay said Tuesday. "I am disgusted by this. Moving forward we need to essentially rewrite our entire ethics ordinance. The General Assembly in Illinois has demonstrated again and again that it is incapable of policing itself. We need to take the process of investigating complaints against the General Assembly out of our control."

Wehrli said an overhaul is necessary to re-establish accountability in the legislature.

"Right now there is a, whether perceived or real, a tendency to protect membership and sort of discount and put a chilling effect on anyone willing to step forward with an ethics complaint," he said. "We need to change that and make sure that the complainant has the rights they're entitled to fully address their concerns."

Last month, more than 300 Illinois women with ties to state government signed a #MeToo letter demanding a change in culture in Springfield that they say allows rampant sexual harassment to occur under a veil of secrecy. The national #MeToo movement started last month after dozens of women came forward to make sexual harassment and rape allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

"This isn't just about sexual harassment," Wehrli said. "The lack of accountability in all levels in this building is stunning, the way we spend our money, sexual harassment, ethics, campaign finance. The lack of accountability is absolutely stunning."