SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers spent most of Tuesday trying to get control of an avoidable sexual-harassment mess which began with a seemingly benign, if sincere, proposal last month to explicitly forbid harassment and intimidation in the ethics code.
Both the House and Senate unanimously adopted the legislation that started the melee — House Speaker Michael Madigan's proposal to require sexual harassment awareness training for all state officers, lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists and leave enforcement of violations to the inspectors generals for each.
The apparently straightforward, universally supported idea created side effects that engulfed the General Assembly for weeks in a state still suffering the impact of a historic, two-year state budget stalemate and $16.6 billion in past-due bills.
It required additional legislation, also OK'd unanimously, to expand powers for the newly appointed legislative inspector general to investigate more than two dozen complaints that piled up during a two-year vacancy in the post.
The impact of inaction became painfully clear last week when legislative activist Denise Rotheimer accused state Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat, of sexual harassment last year while the two worked on legislation.
Silverstein has denied the allegations. He appeared on the floor Senate, waving to reporters as he passed the press box and speaking for several minutes with Senate President John Cullerton for several minutes before taking his seat and working on a laptop. No one approached or spoke to him.
Later, as he left the floor, he told reporters, "My first conversation will be with the inspector general. Thank you."
Chicago Democrat Madigan's legislation proscribing harassment appeared days after an open letter signed by 300 people swept through the Statehouse demanding an end to a long-established culture of harassment and intimidation in the capital. The letter followed on the heels of sexual-harassment scandals roiling the nation this fall, beginning with allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, through the revival of the #MeToo social-media campaign among victims.
"It's time for us to find a way to call a halt to sexual harassment in and around the Capitol and allow the sun to shine instead of shadows to prevail when people misbehave," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat.
But Madigan's plan revealed the vacancy and when Rotheimer, testifying last week in favor of it, publicized alleged incidents in which Silverstein, working with her last year on legislation, sent her inappropriate messages and paid her unwanted compliments. She asked why nothing had happened on the complaint she filed in November 2016.
Senate President Cullerton's office acknowledged the complaint was referred to the inspector general's office, where it sat idle after the last full-time inspector retired in 2014. That forced Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, to accept Silverstein's resignation from his leadership post and a $21,000 annual stipend.
And the Legislative Ethics Commission, after years of saying it couldn't find a suitable candidate for the job, met in an emergency session Saturday and appointed former federal prosecutor Julie Porter.
Cullerton authored the expansion of investigative authority to answer the problem of 27 pending complaints, including Rotheimer's, filed since 2015 which await an investigator to review them. State law limits the time for resolving ethics complaints in many cases to a year, meaning most or all on file are beyond the reach of any investigation. The legislation would allow Porter to investigate allegations awaiting her arrival in office.
With a nod to untangling the debacle, Cullerton called the action "a beginning."
"We addressed problems and issues that should have been tackled a long time ago," he said in a statement which offered support for task forces each House also established Tuesday for further study and recommendations.
Despite the unanimity, House Republicans complained that the ethics changes don't go far enough. Several pointed out that the first inspector, former House member and appellate court judge Tom Homer, who occupied the office from 2004 to 2014, described it as "toothless tiger" for the law's inability to hold lawmakers accountable for conflicts of interest and other ethics lapses.
"This state is known for corruption and unethical behavior," said GOP Rep. Grant Wehrli of Naperville. "Not just sexual harassment, which shouldn't be tolerated anywhere, but in patronage schemes, in not properly filing annual statements of economic interest. We have so much to do to clean up and restore the faith and the trust people have."