In a new revelation in the developing sexual harassment scandal enveloping the Illinois Capitol, a state lawmaker said that more than 25 complaints filed against elected members of the General Assembly have been sitting in a file gathering dust since the staff position charged with investigating the claims became vacant three years ago.
"It's outrageous. It's unacceptable. It's just further evidence of a culture in Springfield that absolutely has to change," Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, said.
McConnaughay is one of eight elected lawmakers who serve on the Legislative Ethics Commission, which oversees the office of the Legislative Inspector General. The inspector general is responsible for investigating sexual harassment and other complaints filed against lawmakers, but the position has been vacant since 2014.
"As late as this week, and after repeated inquiries by myself and others, members were assured that there were 'no pending cases' before the Ethics Commission," McConnaughay said in a statement. "Today, I discovered that staff is, in reality, holding up to 27 separate complaints against members of the Illinois General Assembly, and have used the fact that no Inspector General has been named as the reason there are – technically – no pending cases since it only becomes a 'case' when it is reviewed by the Inspector General."
McConnaughay's revelation comes a day after a witness claimed in a House committee hearing that she filed a sexual harassment complaint against Chicago Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein a year ago but never heard back about the accusation.
Lobbyist Denise Rotheimer, a crime victim advocate, said Silverstein repeatedly made inappropriate comments to her, harassed her on Facebook and in telephone calls as she tried to advance legislation in Springfield.
“I lost 20 pounds. My hair fell out,” Rotheimer told the House committee, which was considering new sexual harassment legislation filed by House Speaker Michael Madigan amid widespread allegations that such harassment had been covered up at the state Capitol for years.
“I had no control over the situation,” Rotheimer said.
More than 300 Illinois women with ties to state government have 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.
McConnaughay said she first heard of Rotheimer's complaint through her testimony on Tuesday. The suburban Chicago lawmaker told INN she called the ethics commission's executive director Wednesday morning "and said, 'I want a straight answer.' He said, 'We don't have any cases open.' I asked if we got a complaint, and he said he did. It went into a binder; it went into a file. He said that's where it stays until an inspector general is named. 'So you take no action on these complaints?' I asked. 'Correct.' "
After learning of 27 such recent complaints that were not being investigated, McConnaughay said she then contacted Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the ethics commission's chairman, state Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan. She said she wants a full investigation of all of the complaints as well as an emergency meeting of the ethics panel to correct what she called the various serious flaws in the process.
"Since joining the General Assembly in 2013, I have never witnessed a more serious abuse of the public’s trust, and firmly believe that the only way to fix this is by exposing what really goes on in these matters to the public," McConnaughay said.
The emergency meeting, she said, would not be open to the public because of state law.
"My belief is we should have all been asking more questions, and I'm just as guilty as anyone," McConnaughay told INN. "I'm working on a bill that will correct the shortcomings of this committee, of which there are many."
INN reached out to four other members of the ethics committee after Tuesday's legislative hearing seeking comment, including Link and Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. Lang is Madigan's deputy majority leader in the House. None have responded.
Silverstein resigned his leadership position in the Senate Democratic caucus Wednesday. After Rotheimer's Tuesday testimony, he said he apologized if he made her feel uncomfortable but denied the allegations of sexual harassment.
In a news release Wednesday, Senate President John Cullerton said he accepted responsibility for his role in the inspector general position not being filled. Cullerton's office admitted Tuesday that it referred Rotheimer's complaint to the vacant inspector general's office, where it set for the past year.
“It’s our duty to fill that post. I take responsibility for my role in that lapse, and I apologize for it,” Cullerton said. “These corrective actions are a first step in changing an unacceptable culture that has existed for too long.”