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Column

Another view: Covering up for harassers

The position of legislative inspector general has been vacant for four years. But appointing someone to be the “toothless watchdog” will not tame sexual harassment in Springfield.

There’s a new scandal in Springfield, one that has legislators ducking for cover, pointing fingers of blame and promising to do better.

No, it’s not the sexual-harassment hysteria that already has cost one legislator his party-leadership post, although that’s a big part of it.

The “scandal” is the fact that legislators have, for several years, forgotten to appoint a legislative inspector general, whose job is to investigate complaints made about members of the House and Senate.

As a consequence, when individuals seek to allege misconduct, there’s no official to open an inquiry. A staff member simply files the complaint away in some musty drawer.

That means when a female lobbyist sought to file a sexual-harassment complaint against state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, there was no one to look into the matter. Subsequent news reports indicate that numerous individuals have sought to make complaints about legislators’ conduct with the same ineffective result.

How convenient for our legislators and the anything-goes culture they have embraced for decades.

It is, of course, no secret that there is no legislative inspector general and no official interest in appointing one. After all, the only thing better than a toothless legislative inspector general is not to have one at all.

But the vacancy represents the epitome of official indifference, and that looks especially shameful in the aftermath of complaints by female lobbyists about male lawmakers’ behavior.

Since that kind of behavior is in the eye of the beholder, it’s hard to know, specifically, what it means.

But, judging from the accusations made against Silverstein by lobbyist Denise Rotheimer, his actions reveal more than a professional interest in her. Rotheimer asserted that Silverstein called her late at night, commented favorably on her physical appearance and engaged in lengthy Facebook discussions with her that were personal in nature.

He has adamantly denied any impropriety while apologizing if any of his conduct made her feel “uncomfortable.” But his denials have fallen on deaf ears in most quarters, where accusations are tantamount to a finding of guilt.

That’s one reason why Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has tried to get ahead of the issue by proposing legislation that requires mandatory sexual-harassment awareness training for virtually anyone who ever sets foot in the Capitol. Unfortunately for Madigan, he’s complicit in the egregious failure to fill the legislative inspector general’s post.

Madigan, of course, denied any responsibility for the vacancy. After all, he says, he’s only the speaker.

At the same time Madigan was rejecting claims that he is responsible, his loyal first mate – Senate President John Cullerton – took the blame. Although he, like Madigan, is only one legislator, Cullerton said, “It’s our duty to fill that post. I take responsibility for my role in that lapse, and I apologize for it.”

Without any legislative changes, it makes little difference if the legislative inspector general’s post is filled or not. Former legislator and judge Tom Homer, the last full-time legislative inspector general, complained that he was a “toothless watchdog” who had little authority to do anything about wrongdoing he uncovered.

Let’s review the situation – no clear rules, no penalties and no disclosure. That sounds like a recipe for covering up misbehavior rather than the uncovering of it, and it’s no accident.

The Champaign News-Gazette

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