Illinois Lawmakers Focus on Sex Harassment in Veto Session

Illinois lawmakers returned to Springfield Tuesday for veto session, feeling the heat of sex harassment allegations that were ignored for years.

State Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Democrat representing Chicago’s North Side, came back to the Capitol amid calls for his resignation – coming from members of his own party.

Silverstein arrived in the Senate chambers Tuesday, and spoke briefly to Senate President John Cullerton before taking his seat. None of his colleagues approached him, keeping their distance after he was accused of harassment last week, denying the allegations.

"People are uncomfortable with these issues, which is why we’ve had too much silence. It’s time to bring these problems out in the open," said state Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democrat from Evanston who’s running for governor.

Biss was among those calling for Silverstein to resign, and his fellow Democratic candidates for governor, Chris Kennedy and J.B. Pritzker, said they agree.

The focus in Springfield Tuesday was how to repair the damage of three years without a legislative inspector general – meaning allegations of misconduct piled up.

"We’ve had a backlog of 27 complaints over the last two to three years," state Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a Republican from St. Charles, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

It was McConnaughay who brought to light the statute of limitations in Illinois law that only allows investigations to be conducted within one year of the filing of a complaint.

That loophole may have allowed some of the dozens of complaints filed in the past three years to escape not only a penalty, but even further investigation – a flaw that spurred lawmakers to act quickly to appoint a new legislative inspector general.

Former U.S. Attorney Julie Porter was tapped for the role Saturday.

"I am approaching it with the intent to have these be real investigations with real consequences in the sense that I intend fully to look into whatever’s put before me, to use the full tools of the office, such as they are, and to get to the bottom of what I can,” Porter said in an interview with WTTW.

Changing the state Capitol’s culture will take time. In that effort, lawmakers, plus lobbyists and staffers, will undergo new sexual harassment training this week, but they note it is not mandatory.

"It's on my schedule and I’m obviously going to go, I will tell you thought that it’s my understanding that it’s voluntary,” state Rep. David Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights, said Tuesday.

“A lot of victims are still not ready to come forward, they are still lurking in the shadows – probably because they don’t feel protected,” said Chicago Democrat Sara Feigenholtz.

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