In the wake of a decision by Illinois legal profession regulators to not take action against state Sen. Ira Silverstein, who was accused of sexual harassment and who was found by the Illinois Legislative Inspector General to have engaged in behavior “unbecoming of a legislator,” a Chicago law firm has launched a petition drive, asking the Illinois Supreme Court to change Illinois lawyer conduct rules to specifically allow the state to take action against lawyers, including state lawmakers, accused of sexual harassment.
On March 15, the Patterson Law Firm – which boasts of a practice built, in large part, on suing other lawyers – announced it was asking for others to sign on its petition, specifically requesting the rules that govern Illinois lawyers, known as the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, be amended to specifically designate as “professional misconduct” any “conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination.”
In the release, Tom Patterson, managing partner at the firm, notes such a rule, using that language, has already been promulgated as a model rule by the American Bar Association.
Patterson said the petition drive was sparked by the refusal by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission to act further on a complaint the commission received from an Illinois citizen against Silverstein.
In 2017, Silverstein was accused of sexual harassment by lobbyist Denise Rotheimer, who produced a series of text messages she had exchanged with the prominent Chicago Democratic lawmaker.
The allegations helped set in motion a series of hasty actions by Democratic leadership in the General Assembly, seeking to deal with the potentially explosive issue. Leaders and others in and around the State Capitol have repeatedly referenced a “culture” of harassment and abuse they claim has run rampant for many years in Springfield.
However, to date, Silverstein remains the only Illinois lawmaker publicly accused by name of harassment. While he was stripped of his leadership post, he has refused to step down, and is seeking reelection, with the financial backing of Senate President John Cullerton, a longtime ally and fellow Chicago Democrat.
In response to the allegations, Democratic leadership in the General Assembly quickly filled the post of Legislative Inspector General, an office which had been vacant for years, despite being the only office empowered to handle complaints of misconduct against lawmakers.
Silverstein’s case was referred to the Inspector General’s office, and earlier this year, he was cleared of the harassment allegations – though the OLIG’s report said Silverstein “did behave in a manner unbecoming of a legislator in violation of the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act.”
After that report was issued, a Chicago resident, who the Patterson firm claims is a constituent of Silverstein’s, filed a complaint with the ARDC, referencing the OLIG’s report, asking the commission to take professional action against Silverstein, as a lawyer.
Silverstein works as an attorney, maintaining an office in Chicago.
On March 8, the ARDC formally declined to pursue any further action against Silverstein, saying the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct do not empower them to do so, according to a letter, supplied by the Patterson firm, purportedly from the ARDC in response to the alleged constituent complaint.
In the letter, the ARDC said they “in no way condone or approve of any conduct by Mr. Silverstein described in the report.”
However, the ARDC said, since Silverstein’s alleged conduct “did not relate to his representation of any client or to his practice of law,” the commission has no standing to pursue a disciplinary action against him.
“Additionally, IRPC … provides that is (sic) misconduct for a lawyer to violate a federal, state or local statute or ordinance that prohibits discrimination, but also provides that the ARDC cannot bring a charge of professional misconduct against a lawyer for violating the rule unless a court or administrative agency of competent jurisdiction has first made a final and enforceable finding that the lawyer engaged in unlawful discrimination,” the ARDC letter said.
The ARDC said it determined “the conduct at issue in this matter is outside the purview of the IRPC.”
Patterson said this essential loophole in the IRPC, which is incongruous with much of the rest of society today, allows “lawyers and public servants who might otherwise be found unfit to practice law … to continue holding themselves out as attorneys and practicing law without ever even facing investigation.”
While conceding “Silverstein’s actions did not involve a client,” Patterson noted “Silverstein represents over 200,000 people.”
“It is our belief that his relationship to the electorate is that of a client and no diminished ethical standard should apply, as the American Bar Association rule states,” he said.
“Whether an attorney is a full-time litigator or an elected official, sexual harassment and discrimination has no place within the legal community,” Patterson said. “The ABA Rule should be adopted in Illinois so that the ARDC can act on complaints such as the one submitted against Sen. Silverstein.”