With reports of sexual assault and harassment accumulating against lawmakers in the Capitol, the only office with the statutory authority to launch an investigation into the matter is the Illinois Legislative Inspector General. And that office has been empty since June 20, 2013.
In response to the mounting allegations, House Speaker Mike Madigan filed a bill which would require the august body to undergo a yearly “training program” reminding them not to sexually harass their colleagues and staff. Afterward, “proof of completion must be submitted to the applicable ethics officer” by each legislator.
It is unclear who would administer the harassment training or collect the reports, but the list of available ethics officers also serve as the top attorneys working on behalf of the legislature, potentially presenting a conflict of interest.
Meanwhile, the office of the state’s legislative inspector general sits empty. The Legislative Ethics Commission’s executive director, Randy Erferd, attends only to the group’s administrative needs and did not return calls for comment by publication.
Despite this, $312,500 were appropriated for the Office of the Legislative Inspector General in the this year’s budget. The same amount was appropriated in 2013, 2014, 2015, and for the 2016-2017 year. A total of $1,875,000 million has been appropriated for an office which has not been occupied and to pay for a staff which doesn’t exist.
In a failure to appoint an interim inspector, the commission also appears to have been out of compliance with state law. If the legislative inspector general steps down, the Legislative Ethics Commission “shall designate an Acting Legislative Inspector General who shall serve until the vacancy is filled. The Commission shall file the designation in writing with the Secretary of State.”
The Daily Line found no such designation in a Thursday search of the Secretary of State’s records, nor in the archived filings of the commission.
The commission is composed of eight members of Illinois House and Senate leadership, who last met Thursday morning. Commission member and House Assistant Republican Leader Norine Hammond (R-Macomb) said the topic of harassment has not been part of the group’s discussions yet, although she sees an opportunity for the commission’s work to rebuild trust among those aggrieved by lawmaker harassment.
Asked whether the commission would provide an avenue to address those grievances if the group were statutorily strengthened and put back into regular use, Hammond replied: “I don’t think it’s ever been taken out of rotation. So certainly, that is definitely an avenue.”
House Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who frequently presides over the House in the absence of Madigan, said the group still meets every month “unless there’s no activity.”
When asked why the commission has not appointed a Legislative Inspector General in over four years, Lang said “There are lots of different processes going on. I think we’ll have one here shortly, though.”
“We haven’t found an appropriate person but I want to hasten to add that there have been no reports of ethics violations during that period of time so it’s not like there’s something that hasn’t been done,” he said.
The commission’s governing statute holds that the number of claims received by the body is a matter of public record. However, no quarterly or annual reports appear to have been filed by the office since June 2014, making Lang’s claim difficult to verify. The responsibility to file those reports resides with the inspector general.
Lang was asked why quarterly reports, if they have been filed by the commission, have not been made public. “At this moment I don’t have an answer about that for you, but I can tell you if there had been complaints we would have had to figure out how to investigate them.”
Asked whether members of the General Assembly may be exposed to legal risks for failure to comply with legislative ethics statutes requiring a qualified appointee, Lang said “I don’t know about a liability, but I’d say we need an inspector general. Clearly, we should have one.”
Commission member and House Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Turner (D-Chicago) said he did not know how much longer it would take to appoint a new inspector general.
“Even with no inspector general, you can definitely still report to the ethics commission any violations that may be taking place around here,” he said. When asked what the appropriate channel might be, he offered that the procedures and records were available online.
While distinct from a formal complaint, reporters have attempted to ask questions of the commission earlier this year and were left without response.
Without disclosing details of the commission’s meetings, Turner said the broader question of harassment has not come up with the group.
“I just started serving with the ethics commission. So in my short tenure on the commission that topic hasn’t been addressed. So obviously because it’s going on right now, it’s being highlighted. And I’m glad the discussion is happening because without the discussion, no change will happen.”
Turner does not see an expansion of the commission’s capacities as the best way to create a safer environment for victims of sexual harassment.
“I think the best approach would probably be through the legislative process, and coming up with a bill, and just brainstorming on ways that we can create a healthy environment around here as opposed to the ethics commission itself doing something different than they currently do,” he said.
Historically, the idea of lawmakers policing themselves has been repeatedly decried as a conflict of interest. Turner was offered the opportunity to respond to that body of criticism.
“I guess that’s one opinion. It’s not one that I share,” he said.
When the state’s first and only Legislative Inspector General, Tom Homer, left office after a decade of service, his final recommendations for the legislature included greater public transparency in the record-keeping of his former post.
“The confidentiality provisions of the State Officials and Employees Act were designed to maintain the anonymity of whistleblowers and to protect legislators and other state employees wrongly accused of misconduct,” he wrote. “However, the overreach of these provisions serve to block public access to the results of investigations in which misconduct has been found. The consequence is public cynicism toward elected officials and the authorities charged with ethics oversight responsibilities.”
A lack of transparency among the records of legislative wrongdoing can not be fixed with only the appointment of inspector general, Homer said. His letter notes certain exceptions, but concludes his warning to the state by pointing to the underlying limitations of the office.
“In all other cases–which comprise the majority of the matters investigated by the Inspector General–it is entirely up to the Commission as to which reports are made public, if any. Since legislators are not subject to suspension or termination, this means no reports finding legislator misconduct are subject to publication except for those authorized by at least five members of the eight-member bipartisan Commission.
The effect of this dichotomy is that reports finding legislator misconduct are unlikely to ever see the light of day.”