New sexual harassment policy at Illinois Capitol ‘puts fox in charge of henhouse’

Illinois Capitol
Illinois’ lawmakers have gone home for the holidays, confident they’ve done what’s needed to make a victim of sexual harassment by a legislator feel they could come forward with a complaint. (WJBC file photo)

By Cole Lauterbach/Illinois Radio Network

SPRINGFIELD – Lawmakers passed bills, took classes and made endorsed statements saying the culture of sexual harassment in Springfield was on its way to finally being addressed. But others say it wasn’t near enough to persuade victims to come forward.

A week after laws were fast-tracked by House Speaker Michael Madigan to ensure they would address the problem of harassment in the state Capitol, Denise Rotheimer, who in October alleged months of inappropriate behavior by state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, called the changes wholly inadequate.

“I don’t feel like, even now with these changes, that I have been protected against retaliation,” Rotheimer said. “My career has already taken a further hit because I have been further victimized.”

Since Rotheimer made her claims against Silverstein in October, she’s been the target of comments defending Silverstein. Op-Eds have inferred that she was complicit. A female colleague of Silverstein’s publicly stated that she didn’t see the harassment in the situation. Rotheimer told Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter that she would waive her confidentiality rights so that the media could better follow her journey through the process. She hopes this will encourage others to come forward.

Madigan’s bill officially outlawed sexual harassment in the General Assembly. Until the bill was passed, the state’s laws never expressly forbade it. Madigan’s legislation also required training classes for lawmakers and other state departments and created a hotline for people to call with their claims.

Employment lawyer Paula Brantner, senior adviser with the nonprofit Workplace Fairness, wouldn’t suggest a victim of harassment use the process lawmakers put in place to report misconduct, even in light of Madigan’s new law.

“This is not a process that I would recommend going through unless they had no other choice,” Brantner said. “I don’t think anyone could look at this system and feel like this was a system that would protect them if they made a complaint.”

Both Brantner and Rotheimer point to the involvement of the Legislative Ethics Commission, a committee of four Republican and four Democrat lawmakers, as the biggest reason for skepticism of the General Assembly’s changes.

The commission has the final say on whether a complaint investigated by the inspector general should be made public. A four-four split on party lines means the complaint never sees the light of day.

“It puts the fox in charge of the henhouse,” Brantner said. “What incentive would any legislator have for these complaints to move forward when they could be on the chopping block next?”

The Legislative Ethics Commission, Rotheimer said, is the reason she told newly appointed Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter Monday that she has zero confidence in the prospect that her complaint will see justice.

“The same people who swept my complaint under the rug are going to be the very people who get to determine the outcome,” she said.

Since the Legislative Inspector position was created in 2004, the Ethics Commission has allowed only four claims to be made public. Neither Porter nor Commission Chairman Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, would respond to requests for comment.

When Rotheimer made her allegations against Silverstein public, it became clear that Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, knew about the claims in 2016, but he sent them to the commission and sought no further action. Brantner said if that happened with a leader of a Fortune 500 organization, he could be forced to step down after a likely high-profile legal settlement for being in charge of an organization with a system in place that explicitly protects the harasser.

“People who weren’t the harasser but were responsible for dealing with it and haven’t are being scrutinized very closely,” she said. “I think the person responsible for that would have to face some tough questions, if not told to move on completely.”


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