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Illinois Senate rushes to fix sex-harassment quandary

AP file photo
Illinois State Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, speaks in May at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield Ill. After Denise Rotheimer testified on Oct. 31, that Silverstein sexually harassed her last year, House Speaker Michael Madigan plans to call legislation requiring sexual-harassment awareness training for everyone working in the Illinois state Capitol this week. It responds to high-profile harassment cases roiling the nation and an open letter in the Illinois Statehouse demanding action.
AP file photo Illinois State Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, speaks in May at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield Ill. After Denise Rotheimer testified on Oct. 31, that Silverstein sexually harassed her last year, House Speaker Michael Madigan plans to call legislation requiring sexual-harassment awareness training for everyone working in the Illinois state Capitol this week. It responds to high-profile harassment cases roiling the nation and an open letter in the Illinois Statehouse demanding action.

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Senate moved swiftly Tuesday to propose expanded power for the newly minted inspector general, a measure that would authorize her to investigate more than two dozen ethics complaints that have sat idle for as long as two years during a vacancy in the investigator’s office.

The 55-0 vote came just a week after what appeared to be a benign, if sincere, attempt to turn the tide against sexual harassment blew up in the face of lawmakers. They found themselves trying to explain the lack of an investigator, particularly when a legislative activist went public with her complaint of sexual harassment against powerful state Sen. Ira Silverstein and asked why nothing had been done.

The legislation addresses one of the problems that arose. During the vacancy, 27 ethics complaints – including the one by Denise Rotheimer against Silverstein – were filed but not investigated. The time limit for resolving them has likely expired. Cullerton’s measure gives the new inspector general, former federal prosecutor Julie Porter, the authority to investigate them despite any statute of limitations .

The flurry of activity came as sexual harassment complaints roiled the nation, beginning with allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and others this fall and the revival of the #metoo social media campaign among women who have been victims.

Silverstein, forced to resign his leadership position a day after Rotheimer’s testimony, attended Tuesday’s Senate session. He walked onto the floor shortly after business began, waved to reporters as he passed the press box, addressed a staff member and spoke briefly with Sen. President John Cullerton before taking his seat and working on a laptop.

No one approached him or spoke to him.

Shortly before the Senate recessed, Silverstein returned to the press box and said, “My first conversation will be with the inspector general. Thank you,” before departing.

Rotheimer told a House committee a week ago that Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat, had sent her inappropriate messages, paid her unwanted compliments and called her late at night last year while the two worked on legislation. Silverstein denied the allegations but, faced with a public relations problem, Cullerton accepted the 18-year veteran’s resignation as majority caucus chair, which carried a $21,000 annual stipend.

The initial legislation, which explicitly prohibits sexual harassment in the ethics law, requires awareness training for all lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists, and hands enforcement to the inspector general, could see House action Tuesday.

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