Legislature faces heat for failure to deal with misconduct allegations
A Republican member of the Legislative Ethics Commission said Thursday she thinks investigations of legislative ethics should be independent of the Illinois General Assembly.
State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, said she is working with others "to completely change the ethics commission."
"It is very clear the General Assembly cannot police itself," McConnaughay said. "Anybody who would legitimately want to bring forward a complaint needs to have a process in place where they know the General Assembly cannot tinker or affect the outcome. That the individual who is going to investigate the complaint is in no way tied to the General Assembly in any way, shape or form. Unless you do that, it is a completely flawed, waste of time."
McConnaughay made the comments as the General Assembly continued to grapple from fallout from its failure to appoint a legislative inspector general to investigate complaints about misconduct in the Legislature. The last person to hold the job full time left in 2014 and a temporary replacement left in 2015. The job has been vacant since.
Under the procedures of the office, the inspector general gives an initial review to misconduct complaints filed with the office, and then makes a recommendation to the Legislative Ethics Commission if further investigation is warranted. The commission is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats each from the House and the Senate.
As a member of the commission, McConnaughay said she repeatedly asked if there were any cases filed, even though there was no inspector general. McConnaughay said she was told there were none.
On Tuesday, though, activist Denise Rotheimer testified before a House committee and said she was the victim of sexual harassment in 2016 by Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago. Silverstein has denied that he harassed Rotheimer.
Subsequently, Senate President John Cullerton's office said Cullerton was aware of the allegations against Silverstein and that a complaint had been filed with the Legislative Inspector General's office.
After seeing that, McConnaughay, who described herself as "very irate," said she called Randy Erford, executive director of the Legislative Ethics Commission, to ask how there could be no pending cases if a complaint had been registered against Silverstein.
She said that's when she was told that a complaint doesn't become a case until the inspector general reviews the complaint and recommends further action. Since there is no inspector general to review the complaints, there are no cases pending. However, 27 complaints have been filed in the past 2 years and are awaiting review.
"There's a serious game of semantics being played here," McConnaughay said. "If I knew I had to ask questions in a certain way, believe me, I would have asked it."
Erford could not be reached for comment. Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, current chair of the Legislative Ethics Commission, said Erford is the office administrator and does not have investigative authority.
The nature of the complaints that have been filed are not public; even commission members are not provided with details, such as the identity of the individuals involved.
"No one should be told the details of these things before an inspector general looks at it," McConnaughay said.
She did say that she was told a number of the pending complaints did not involve the legislative branch and would have to be redirected.
McConnaughay acknowledged she is still working on what sort of mechanism could be put into place to make the review separate from the Legislature.
"I have to believe that we are capable of coming up with a process that we can resist the process of politicizing," she said.
Cullerton issued a statement Wednesday saying he expects an interim inspector general to be named soon. The Legislative Ethics Commission, composed of the eight lawmakers, has final approval over the appointment of a legislative inspector general.
[Over the weekend, a former federal prosecutor, Julie B. Porter, was appointed as the new legislative inspector general.]
McConnaughay said various members of the commission have put forward names of potential candidates "and all of them have been thrown into a black hole and nothing comes of it."
Link agreed that names have been suggested, but said the potential candidates have not been interested in the job that is officially part-time. The inspector general is paid an hourly rate based on time spent on the investigations.
"I've recommended a few to the president," Link said. "We've tried to reach out to people. Nobody has said, 'Oh yeah, I would really love to do this job.' Everybody that we have reached out to, after consideration and thought says, 'No, I don't want to spend the time or the energy.'"
Link said that while it is not a full-time job, it can be time-consuming.
Since the appointment of an inspector general essentially requires the approval of three of the four legislative leaders, "no blame can be put on one particular individual," Link said.
McConnaughay said the inaction over appointing a new legislative inspector general is the result of the "hyper-partisan atmosphere" in the General Assembly.
"Neither side trusts the other," she said.
Link said he was aware that complaints were pending, awaiting action by an inspector general when one is appointed.
"Out of this, my history of being on the commission, maybe three or four of these would be the type that would really be investigated. Maybe. Maybe none," he said. "It's not like there's a thousand [complaints] waiting to be investigated."
McConnaughay said the number of complaints might increase if people thought the process was independent of the Legislature.
"Maybe not everybody feels comfortable coming forward," she said. "If we truly had a process that was outside of the control of the General Assembly, would we see an increase in complaints? That's an interesting question."