Amid Harassment Allegation, Illinois Senator Loses Leadership Spot and Lawmakers Scramble to Fill Investigator's Job

by | November 2, 2017

By Monique Garcia and Kim Geiger

Fallout from the sexual harassment scandal at the Illinois Capitol continued Wednesday, as a state senator lost his leadership position and top Democrats scrambled to find a leader for the agency tasked with investigating such complaints after letting the job remain vacant for years.

Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein of Chicago "will no longer serve" as Senate Democratic majority caucus chair, according to Senate President John Cullerton. The move came a day after Denise Rotheimer, an activist for victims of violent crime, told lawmakers at a public hearing that Silverstein made unwanted comments about her appearance, sent her hundreds of Facebook messages and placed midnight phone calls as she was working with him to pass legislation for nearly 18 months.

Silverstein has disputed the allegations and said he apologized "if I made her uncomfortable." Losing his leadership spot will cost him an $20,649 annual stipend on top of the $67,836 base salary lawmakers get for what's considered a part-time job. Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Silverstein said he was in the middle of grocery shopping at Mariano's and would have to call back.

Cullerton, the Senate president, was largely silent Tuesday, but on Wednesday responded to the growing scandal by announcing that lawmakers will be required to take a sexual harassment awareness training seminar when they return to the Capitol next week.

Cullerton also said he "anticipates" an interim legislative inspector general will be named as soon as next week.

That announcement came as a Republican senator questioned why no one has acted on more than two dozen ethics complaints filed at the legislative inspector general's office since 2015. Sen. Karen McConnaughay, who sits on the panel of lawmakers that oversees such complaints, also wanted to know why she was only just now learning that those unresolved complaints existed.

Democratic lawmakers cited two technical reasons. One is that there's no legislative inspector general, so there's no one with the power to turn complaints of any nature into an actual investigation. The other is that sexual harassment is not currently included as a specific violation of the state's ethics act, meaning that the Legislative Ethics Commission can't hold a hearing or issue punishments on such complaints.

The General Assembly has been without a permanent chief watchdog for more than three years. Three of the four legislative leaders have to agree on a nominee before the commission can consider installing the person in the role, said Democratic Sen. Terry Link, who is chairman of the legislative ethics panel.

Cullerton attempted to assign blame to himself on Wednesday. "It's our duty to fill that post. I take responsibility for my role in that lapse, and I apologize for it," he said in a statement.

But legislative leaders have failed to hire a permanent legislative inspector general since Tom Homer left at the end of June 2014. The following week, the Chicago Tribune published details of a secret report put together by Homer in the wake of a 2013 Metra scandal that offered new insight into how Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan navigated the intersection of public business and ward-style patronage through his Southwest Side office and Illinois Capitol suite.

The report contained an account of Metra's chairwoman entering Madigan's Capitol office to talk about state issues and leaving with a yellow Post-it note bearing the names of two workers the speaker wanted to see promoted. In another meeting, a Metra lobbyist who was a longtime Madigan aide was spotted leaving the speaker's office with two resumes. Another time, Madigan simply called the cellphone of one of his "better" precinct captains to tell him about a state job, according to the report.

A copy of the unreleased report also gave a rare glimpse into Madigan's thoughts on getting people government jobs and raises. In an interview with Homer, Madigan is quoted as speaking highly of both the work-related credentials and the political experience of one 13th Ward operative the speaker backed for a raise.

"You can understand that there are many people that are involved with me and campaigns and community service," Madigan said, according to the report. "Among these many people, some are better than others. (He) happens to be one of those who is better than others."

At the time, Madigan's spokesman issued a statement saying the speaker asked for the investigation and cooperated fully with it and noted that the legislative inspector general had "found no violation of any law."

At Tuesday's public hearing, Madigan was asked if he would commit to finally appointing an inspector general. "I don't make the appointment. The appointment's made by a vote of the House and the Senate," Madigan said.

Illinois law tasks the Legislative Ethics Commission to "diligently search out qualified candidates" and make recommendations to the General Assembly. It's then up to the House and Senate to agree on a joint resolution, which requires a three-fifths vote.

When Madigan was again asked later at the hearing if he would commit to filling the post, he answered, "yes."

It was at that same Tuesday hearing that Rotheimer, the victim rights advocate, leveled her accusations at Silverstein. Cullerton's office said "it is our understanding there is an open investigation."

That caught the attention of McConnaughay, the Republican senator from St. Charles. She said that she and other legislative ethics oversight commission members routinely were told by staff that there were no pending cases.

Confused by the discrepancy, McConnaughay contacted the legislative commission's executive director, Randy Erford. McConnaughay said it was explained to her that there's a distinction between what is considered a complaint versus a case. McConnaughay said she was told that complaints like Rotheimer's ended up in a binder but were not listed as cases in reports to the commission because the legislative inspector general is required to open a case. That's the job that's long gone unfilled.

"It's all caught up on a technicality," said McConnaughay, who said she was told there were 27 complaints filed between 2015 and now. Erford did not respond to requests for comment.

The senator said she planned to push for an outside attorney to be appointed as a special investigator to handle the backlog of cases, as well as legislation to overhaul the complaint process.

"The General Assembly is clearly incapable of policing itself," McConnaughay said.

Link, the Waukegan Democrat who chairs the legislative ethics commission, would not confirm the number of pending complaints.

"But they're not cases because until the inspector general, which we hope we have somebody very quickly, investigates, then it either becomes a case or it's dismissed, one of the two," Link said.

Link said he's called a Nov. 9 ethics commission meeting and expects that a nominee to fill the role will be voted on.

Madigan, testifying Tuesday in Chicago in support of his bill to require sexual harassment training for legislative employees and lobbyists, said the vacancy at the inspector general's office was "regrettable" but had not prevented the ethics commission from functioning.

In 2017, Erford had three complaints that he "took directly" to Link, the commission chairman, Madigan said. In 2016, there were eight complaints, and in 2015 there were 15 complaints, Madigan said.

"So the commission has been functioning," Madigan said. "Any complaint is brought to the attention of the chairman."

But there's an important distinction between the inspector general and the ethics commission.

Sexual harassment is not currently included as a specific violation of the state's ethics act, so the Legislative Ethics Commission has no power to hold a hearing on a sexual harassment complaint or punish someone who's been accused of sexual harassment, according to Heather Wier Vaught, Madigan's top lawyer and a former ethics officer for the House Democratic Caucus.

The inspector general (that's the job that's vacant), however, does have the ability to investigate a sexual harassment complaint. Once an investigation is complete, though, the Ethics Commission can't do much with it other than release it to the public. And accusers are typically uncomfortable with going public with their accusations out of fear of retribution.

The legislation proposed by Madigan would add a prohibition against sexual harassment to the state's ethics act, making it possible for the ethics commission to punish those who've been found in violation, Wier Vaught said.

Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson contributed. Geiger and Pearson reported from Chicago.

(c)2017 the Chicago Tribune