Women in Springfield took a public stand 11 months ago to try to stop pervasive sexual harassment and unwanted advances in the capitol.
Since then, several lawmakers and political operatives have resigned or been fired after allegations of harassment surfaced. The state's Legislative Inspector General, tasked with investigating lawmakers and their staffs but overseen by lawmakers themselves, has largely been on the sidelines. In several high-profile cases, women said they had no faith in the ability of lawmakers to discipline themselves or trust in the person they picked to do the job for them. This highlights the need for structural reform to the entire process of investigating alleged wrongdoing by elected officials.
More than 130 lawmakers, lobbyists and others signed on to an open #MeToo letter in October 2017 that aimed to change the culture under the dome.
“Every industry has its own version of the casting couch. Illinois politics is no exception,” the letter said. “Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail. Misogyny is alive and well in this industry.”
Lawmakers on the bipartisan Legislative Ethics Commission appointed Julie Porter to be the acting Legislative Inspector General within weeks of that letter. Porter said she could make things better.
A former federal prosecutor, Porter would be well-suited for the post if the job had the power and independence of an elected attorney general. But that's not what the legislature has set up in Illinois as a check on their power and misuse of it. It's important to remember that before Porter was appointed, the position had been vacant for more than two years. The legislature didn't want to be inspected. And it still doesn't.
Also remember that the last person to have that job before Porter called it a "toothless tiger."
Thanks to the continued efforts of women brave enough to come forward and those working together behind the scenes, lawmakers could be forced to change things.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a measure into law this spring to address one weakness of the Legislative Inspector General, but more is needed. The new law allows the Legislative Inspector General to investigate sexual harassment complaints without getting approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission, the oversight panel that is made up exclusively of lawmakers. Other complaints would still need to be approved by the commission before an investigation could start.
Letting lawmakers determine which complaints about lawmakers should be investigated and which should not is a charade.
The women who have publicly accused powerful men in Springfield of harassment know this. Sherri Garrett, an employee in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office, detailed five years of harassment by Madigan's Chief of Staff Tim Mapes. Garrett said at the time that she didn't file a complaint with the Legislative Inspector General because she didn’t trust the process. Mapes was quickly fired after Garrett came forward publicly.
Last week, another powerful ally of the House Speaker was cleared by the Legislative Inspector General. Porter determined there wasn't enough evidence to prove Maryann Loncar's allegations of harassment against state Rep. Lou Lang. Porter noted that Loncar would not be interviewed for the investigation. Loncar said she never filed a complaint with Porter because she didn't trust that the process could be objective.
And that's exactly the problem. Lawmakers can't be trusted to police themselves. Just like banks can't be trusted to regulate themselves.
Lawmakers must give its Legislative Inspector General real power and independence. But don't expect them to change anything without continued pressure from women and voters.