Sexual harassment accusations continue to roil IL assembly, but very different from private sector cases

By Karen Kidd | Nov 8, 2017

SPRINGFIELD — As sexual harassment scandals spread in the Illinois General Assembly and other state governments, some lawmakers are calling for still more action to empower investigators to pull the curtain back on what has been described as a rampant culture of abuse in Springfield. 

However, unlike private sector employers, state officials don't face a realistic threat of lawsuits over their actions, says a lawyer who specializes in such harassment cases.

Among those vocally calling out Illinois' legislative leadership, State Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, for instance, applauded the appointment of an interim legislative inspector general (LIG) after years of vacancy in that office, but further called for a special prosecutor to investigate more than two dozen ethics complaints that have sat untouched in the General Assembly for as much as three years.

On Nov. 4, Julie Porter, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago who served as chief of the office's criminal division, was appointed temporary legislative inspector general. From her first day on the job, Porter faces a backlog of 27 ethics complaints against lawmakers that haven't been addressed over the last three years, as the Democrat-controlled General Assembly left the office vacant.

Skillicorn is one of a number of GOP lawmakers in Springfield calling for an overhaul of the legislature's ethics review system

"The Office of LIG must be invested with the power necessary to bring charges forward for prosecution without the approval of legislators," Skillicorn said in a press release. "Sexual harassment can take many forms. The most egregious, where power is abused by legislators to intimidate or coerce others, should result in a perp walk where those convicted follow in the footsteps of a few former governors in 'stamping out license plates' at the local prison."

Porter's appointment and Skillicorn's comments come in the wake of sexual harassment allegations in the Illinois General Assembly and in other states, part of a boom in similar complaints since allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein began to get attention last month.  

As public anger over sexual harassment seems to be accelerating, more and more victims are coming forward in forums such as the online "Me too" movement. 

"People are feeling more engaged right now," said Arthur R. Ehrlich, an attorney and partner at Goldman & Ehrlich, who has represented many discrimination and sexual harassment clients in the private sector. "It's you seeing that it's not just you, it's everyone else, too."

Alleged harassers are being targeted. State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) lost his position as the Illinois State Senate Democrat majority caucus whip over allegations that he sexually harassed a lobbyist. In Silverstein's case, a victims of violent crime activist informed lawmakers during a public hearing that the state senator from Illinois' 8th District in Chicago made unwanted comments about her appearance, targeted her with hundreds of Facebook messages, called her in the middle of the night, all while she was trying to work with him over 18 months to get legislation passed.

Illinois isn't the only state with a general assembly abuzz about sexual harassment and complaints. Sexual harassment scandals have broken out in other general assemblies, including in Oregon, Massachusetts and Kentucky.

In addition to Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton's announcement that Sen. Silverstein was pulled from his majority whip seat, other lawmakers have taken action to address the culture of sexual harassment. Skillicorn on Monday introduced House Bill 4149, which would set up a dedicated phone line maintained by the state's Attorney General for reporting sexual harassment.

Also in the House, Rep. Sara Feigenholtz and Rep. Juliana Stratton, both Chicago Democrats from the 5th and 12 Districts respectively, introduced House Joint Resolution 83, Sexual Harassment in Government.

The joint resolution, which urges lawmakers to commit to themselves to changing culture that breeds sexual harassment, was unanimously approved Nov. 7.

Ehrlich said now may also be the time for the public sector to take a few lessons from the private sector, where rules and procedures for addressing sexual harassment have long been established. There, victims of sexual harassment who decide to come forward often stick to their case despite how little they might receive in monetary damages, he said.

"They're still willing to forge ahead because it's the principle of the matter," Ehrlich said.

Victims often must overcome concerns about retaliation and their future in the workplace where the alleged harassment occurred, Ehrlich said. Once they do decide to move forward, victims in Illinois' private sector have various avenues to file complaints, he said. Those avenues start with a complaint to their employer and then, if necessary, can move up to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for companies with more than 15 employees and the Illinois Department of Human Rights for smaller companies.

However, establishing a liability trail for elected representatives is much more murky, he said.

In the private sector, employers can be sued in sexual harassment cases if they failed to do anything about an existing severe and pervasive hostile workplace environment, Ehrlich said. A company's failure to act can discourage victims to persist in their case, he added. 

"They think, 'If the company didn't do anything about it, why should I think a jury will?'" he said. "On the flip side, I've seen that type of situation make people more determined to move forward."

For Illinois' elected lawmakers, however, sexual harassment wasn't even considered an official ethics violation until Democratic assembly leaders, in response to the fallout of allegations against lawmakers, in general - yet to date, against only Silverstein, specifically - finally enacted legislation on Nov. 7 adding harassement to the list of violations of the assembly's ethics code. Now, state representatives and senators accused of sexually harassing a subordinate, lobbyist or anyone else over whom they wield influence could face a formal investigation and potentially a fine of $5,000. 

Legislation passed by the General Assembly on Nov. 7 also included provisions mandating sexual harassment awareness training for all lawmakers; establishing a hotline to aid people in filing sexual harassment ethics complaints; and creating task forces to present recommendations for further action in 2018.

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Goldman & Ehrlich Illinois Attorney General Illinois Department of Human Services Illinois General Assembly Illinois House of Representatives Illinois State Senate

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