Will consider whether independent third party should review complaints
Three Springfield area lawmakers are part of the House task force assigned to examine further ways to combat instances of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
That includes Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, R-Leland Grove, who was named the ranking Republican on the 40-member task force.
“I had asked to be appointed to the task force as soon as I knew that was going to be part of our going forward process,” Jimenez said, adding that she did not seek out the role of top Republican on the group. “I’m honored to do that because I think we need to very quickly do these reviews.”
As specified in House Resolution 687 that created the task force, the group is supposed to “conduct a comprehensive review of the legal and social consequences of sexual discrimination and harassment, in both the public and private sectors, and make recommendations to the General Assembly.”
The resolution also says that at a minimum, the task force should look at changes needed to state law to define sexual discrimination and harassment, what kinds of behaviors should be subject to legal sanctions, and review best practices in use to combat sexual harassment and discrimination.
In addition, the resolution says the task force should examine “whether an independent third party should be assigned to handle complaints.”
Gov. Bruce Rauner touched on that when he signed into law two bills passed by the General Assembly during the veto session to deal with instances of sexual harassment. Rauner called one of the bills “very flawed,” but signed it anyway because it was needed to deal with 27 backlogged cases before the legislative inspector general.
Rauner said the legislative inspector general has very restricted powers and “there is a lot of control with the Legislature about what (the IG) can investigate. This is wrong. There should be complete independence.”
Jimenez said one thing she wants to research is why the legislative ethics system was set up the way it is in the first place.
“I’m always for looking at an independent group or person to take a look at what we do,” she said.
However, there are restrictions on the sanctions that can be imposed on an elected official and by whom, she said.
At the same time, Jimenez said, the current system clearly has problems.
“I would argue that our current process, where we had (no) legislative inspector general for years, is a process that failed,” she said.
Illinois’ last full time legislative inspector general, former representative Tom Homer, left in 2014. A temporary replacement, former U.S. Attorney Bill Roberts, left in 2015. Until early November, the post remained vacant because the four legislative leaders could not agree on a replacement.
During that time, 27 complaints alleging ethical violations by either lawmakers or legislative staffers were filed, but not investigated because there was no inspector general. During the recent rising furor over the unresolved complaints, a temporary inspector general was appointed.
Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, also was appointed to the task force.
“I do share some of the governor’s concerns that we did act very quickly in enacting some of this stuff,” Butler said. “I think it would behoove us to step back and take a larger view and involve other people to see what else we can do to curb this situation.”
Butler said he’ll wait and see how deeply the task force gets involved in issues that don’t deal directly with sexual harassment. He said, though, that there has to be a “balancing act” to ensure that investigations are done quickly and thoroughly while also protecting the rights of someone accused of wrongdoing.
Butler pointed to the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is separate from Congress.
“That has a very good mission, but I do think you’ve seen some examples where things get reported to the office that are supposed to be private that end up being leaked to the media,” he said.
Jimenez said she hasn’t experienced sexual harassment as a state lawmaker.
“When I was in different staff positions, I would characterize some of the behavior as inappropriate,” Jimenez said. “It was one or two instances. I would handle it myself with the person.”
However, during the 2016 campaign, Jimenez’ opponent, Tony DelGiorno, apologized after one of his supporters posted a comment on social media that used a vulgarity to suggest that Jimenez’s chances of winning the election were linked to her looks.
Jimenez said she had to deal with a stalker when she worked in television news.
“A viewer went way overboard with contact with me and we had to file a felony stalking charge,” she said. “It was life-changing, dealing with the stalking incident.”
After nearly 25 years around state government, Butler said he’s aware that harassment has been going on.
“It’s a culture, not just in state government, but I think it is a culture in society,” he said. “I think what has happened the last month is good and we’re having a serious discussion about it.”
Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Raymond, also is part of the task force.
The House task force is scheduled to meet Wednesday. It is supposed to deliver its report to the House by the end of 2018.
The Senate also has a task force to investigate the sexual harassment issue and also is supposed to deliver its report to the Senate by the end of 2018.