Metro-East News

Advocate pushes to change legislative ethics investigations

The Illinois Senate began considering a joint resolution to appoint a new legislative inspector general last week at virtually the same time a prominent anti-violence advocate was having a news conference calling for it.

“That’s because I’m here, that’s why I came,” Denise Rotheimer said after being notified mid-conference of the Senate resolution. “Isn’t that so ironic?”

Acting LIG Julie Porter is stepping down at the end of February. Her likely successor, Judge Carol Pope, will be appointed March 1 if the resolution passes the House, as it already did Thursday in the Senate.

Because a joint resolution puts the LIG appointment before every member of the General Assembly, Rotheimer says it “gives the people of the state of Illinois” a voice in the selection. The last time an LIG was appointed by joint resolution was in 2008.

But the reason Rotheimer wants the resolution is because she is dissatisfied with how the current, acting LIG was appointed — through the Legislative Ethics Commission, and not by joint resolution.

The office

The Office of the Legislative Inspector General is held by a single person who investigates reported ethics violations against state officials. The position has been controversial at times since Rotheimer went public with a complaint of sexual harassment against former Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein in November 2017. She accused Silverstein of abusing power while she tried to get legislation passed.

But at the time, there was no LIG to investigate Rotheimer’s complaint. The position had been vacant for almost three years, while 27 ethics complaints — including Rotheimer’s — piled up without action.

Five days after Rotheimer went public, Porter was appointed the special legislative inspector general.

The connection

Porter was named special LIG in November 2017 by the Legislative Ethics Commission, a group of eight appointed members and one executive director.

While, legally, the LIG is to be “independent,” the ethics commission has oversight, and Porter was originally appointed by the commission. Each complaint received requires commission approval for further investigation.

Rotheimer argues this is unacceptable, partly because all eight members of the ethics commission are legislators. And because the ethics commission must approve the LIG’s investigations, “you can’t have colleagues overseeing the behavior of colleagues.”

But the connection is not that simple.

The story

When Rotheimer went public with her complaint, “there was a sense of urgency to fill the [inspector general] position,” Avery Bourne, a Republican senator from Raymond, said. She chairs the ethics commission that quickly appointed Porter in 2017.

“There was a significant backlog [of complaints] because of the vacancy in the LIG’s office,” Bourne said, “and it was Porter’s goal to get through the backlog as well as whatever cases came up.”

Porter did so and, two months later in January 2018, released a report on Rotheimer’s complaint, finding no wrongdoing on Silverstein’s part, but admitting he behaved in a manner “unbecoming of a legislator.”

But Rotheimer did not have closure. She claimed Porter’s appointment lacked proper vetting and research. And she said it’s a contradiction to have an “independent” LIG needing approval from the ethics commission to further investigate cases.

Bourne said that approval requirement doesn’t mean the commission hinders investigations.

“[The LIG] comes to the commission for approval for investigating claims. That’s something that’s happened under both [acting LIG] Porter and the other LIGs we’ve had previously,” Bourne said. “But the commission has never denied a request to investigate in the history of its existence.”

The issue previously, Bourne said, is that for a few years there was no one to ask for the ethics commission’s approval in the first place.

Changes

The dynamic between the LIG and the ethics commission has changed significantly since Rotheimer’s case. Most of these changes come from a bill passed last May sponsored by Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake.

For example, a new process was used to select Carol Pope as Porter’s successor. Each legislative caucus appointed one person to an independent group to interview and vet the 20 applicants. None of the group’s members were lawmakers.

That group sent a shortened list of candidates to the ethics commission, which then recommended Pope. Pope’s final approval will be through joint resolution in each chamber, as Rotheimer supported.

The legislation also set a timeline of 45 days for LIG vacancies to be filled by an acting appointee. Further, it removed the requirement that the LIG ask approval of the ethics commission for one type of case — sexual harassment.

As for Rotheimer’s issue with only legislators being on the ethics commission, Bourne said there is no requirement that it be so.

“It’s possible that [the ethics commission] could be members of the public,” she said. “We can have that conversation, but I don’t think we need new legislation to do that.”

Moving forward

During Wednesday’s news conference, Rotheimer announced three pieces of new legislation that stemmed from the LIG controversy.

The first would provide ethics complainants with rights, which she said she did not have when she went through the process.

Bourne agreed with this assessment, adding that most of the provisions in the ethics code are about the general public and misuse of taxpayer dollars. Bourne’s Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Task Force — another product of the LIG overhaul bill — is looking at ways to put in specific victim language.

Rotheimer’s other two bills would replace legislators on the ethics commission with independents, and would remove the LIG’s requirement to get approval from the ethics commission — something already partially taken care of.

As for Pope’s selection as the next LIG, she will serve until 2023 if approved by the House.

The most recent numbers from December 2018 show the LIG’s office has 15 pending investigations, with three cases concluded since September.

Grant Morgan: gmorgan@capitolnewsillinois.com
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