Recent reports that incidents of sexual harassment in the Illinois General Assembly are not promptly investigated, or are not even reported due to fear of retaliation, are proof that the legislative ethics review system is in need of a complete overhaul, stressed State Representative Grant Wehrli. Wehrli, along with Representatives Keith Wheeler and Mark Batinick, today introduced a series of reforms that will give deference to complainants in such cases, and ensure their claims receive a fair and unbiased review.
“I’m very pleased that after more than a year we finally have a Legislative Inspector General in place this week. I’m confident Julie Porter will do an excellent job. But there’s more we must do to correct the fundamental flaws in the process that for years have made harassment victims hesitant to come forward because they felt the system was stacked against them. It’s that bias that we’re targeting with these reforms,” said Rep. Wehrli (R-Naperville).
“Sexual harassment in any form is wholly unacceptable. Our State Capitol and all government offices must be places where legislators, staff, lobbyists and visitors treat each other with the utmost dignity and respect. Our legislation will help to make this expectation a reality by strengthening the legislative ethics review process,” said Rep. Wheeler (R-Oswego). “Victims of sexual harassment should always be made to feel safe in coming forward; and every perpetrator should be held accountable to their organization, caucus, or the proper authorities.”
“I am glad that after so long the office of Legislative Inspector General has finally been filled,” said Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield). “In order for Illinoisans to have any confidence in their state government this important office must be able to do its job effectively. The past few weeks’ news about sexual harassment in state government has made it clear that more reforms are needed, and our legislation is a step in the right direction.”
House Bill 4151 incorporates much needed changes recommended in a 2014 letter to legislators by Illinois’ last Legislative Inspector General Tom Homer that includes the enactment of patronage reform measures, the establishment of transparency in investigations, and the enactment of conflict of interest prohibitions.
“There has been broad agreement on the need for these reforms for three years, but they have yet to be enacted. We need to move forward,” Representative Wehrli said.
Further, the legislation completely restructures how legislators serving on the Legislative Ethics Commission are chosen. Instead of the current method of requiring the four caucus leaders to each choose two members to serve, under HB 4151 two members from each caucus would be selected by random draw, similar to a jury selection. Members selected would serve on the Commission for 60 days. An “alternate” from each caucus would also be chosen to step in should a serving member be unable to fulfill their duties. No member would be allowed to serve consecutive terms.
“Random selection of members every 60 days will go a long way to eliminating outside influence and reassuring those with complaints that they will receive a fair and unbiased review,” Representative Wehrli said.
The proposed reforms will also help clarify the reporting process by renaming the Legislative Inspector General as the Legislative Ethics Review Officer, and providing additional clarification on the role and responsibilities of the office. It also requires that departments post reporting information and guidelines in their offices alongside other required notices.
“This simply ensures anyone with a complaint is clear on who they can go to for help and how they can go about it,” Representative Wehrli said. “We’re also requiring that the Legislative Review Officer have federal experience, not simply state experience, to again avoid even the appearance of cronyism.”
“The recent sexual harassment stories coming from the Capitol have shone a bright light on how horribly inadequate our system for investigating serious ethics complaints really is. The reforms my colleagues and I are offering today will help us finally put an end to the cronyism that has long protected and enabled bad behavior in state government.”