#MeToo in Illinois: Progress Made in Sexual Harassment Investigations, but Still Room for Improvements

The #MeToo movement engulfed Springfield in November 2017 after an activist announced that no investigation was conducted after she submitted a sexual harassment complaint about a powerful state senator. ICPR reported this inaction as result of the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC) and legislative leaders’ failure to fill the office of the Legislative Inspector General (LIG).

Amid the controversy, legislators moved quickly to appoint attorney Julie Porter as an interim LIG. She began investigating a backlog of complaints that accumulated over the two years without an LIG.

Legislators passed a handful of preliminary reforms to address flaws in the legislative ethics investigation process. Senate Bill 402, which was signed into law in November 2017, amended the legislative ethics code to include sexual harassment as an ethics violation. Other bills waived the deadline for backlogged complaints and a House and Senate Sexual Harassment Task Forces was created to address sexual harassment in Springfield.

To compound the controversy, the Democratic Party of Illinois faced a sexual harassment scandal of its own when a campaign staffer accused Party Chair and House Speaker Michael Madigan of covering up sexual harassment by one of his top aides. In response, Madigan formed an independent Anti-Harassment, Equality, and Access panel in February 2018, which consists of Comptroller Susana Mendoza, State Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Champaign), and State Sen. Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake). Since its formation, the panel has provided no update regarding the creation of new reporting policies or how to adjudicate and take disciplinary measures in response to sexual harassment. The panel plans to meet over the summer to continue this work.

Across the aisle, the Illinois Republican Party provided no response when ICPR requested details on the party’s protections for campaign workers experiencing sexual harassment.

Emma LaBounty, a member of the Executive Council of the Campaign Workers Guild who lives in Chicago, explained that numerous campaign workers unionize to gain protections without changes in state statute. Campaigns “recognize that [sexual harassment and assault] is an issue that needs to be dealt with,” she said. LaBounty added that accountability measures must be included in collective bargaining agreements.

The issues within the Democratic Party prompted campaign workers and volunteers in Illinois to call for greater protections. State Rep. Sara Wojicicki Jimenez (R-Springfield), the Republican Spokesperson for the House Sexual Harassment Task Force, said its members plan to expand the Illinois Human Rights Act to include campaign workers and volunteers in those protected by the act’s anti-discrimination measures.

Accusations against Illinois Democratic leadership continue to persisted. On the last day of the legislative session, May 31, House Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang (D-Skokie) stepped down from his position after being accused of blackmail, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse by medical marijuana advocate. He also resigned from his position in the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and the LEC, which oversees sexual harassment cases.

Then, on the same day, a legislative package, House Bill 138, won swift, unanimous approval from both chambers. Among several revisions, it removes a requirement that the LIG get permission from the LEC to investigate complaints; overhauls the process to find an LIG, which will now need approval by the General Assembly; and extends the statute of limitations for discrimination and sexual harassment complaints from 180 to 300 days.

“With this legislation, we wanted to make sure the reporting process is reliable, equitable, fair and timely for the accuser as well as the accused,” said Bush, who’s also co-chair of the Senate Sexual Harassment Task Force. “This is a strong first step but more work needs to be done.”

The Sexual Harassment Task Forces will continue conversations and are mandated to file a report with policy recommendations in December 2018. But that shouldn’t stop legislators from using the November veto session as an opportunity to enact further reforms.

While the Illinois legislature was one of the few states to pass reform since the start of the #MeToo movement, improvements are still needed to protect legislators, staffers, lobbyists, campaign workers, and volunteers. ICPR shared a Best Practices proposal with the ILGA in November of 2017. Some language from our proposal remains absent from the legislative ethics process. Similar calls for reform from other advocates have gone unanswered. Additionally, the state’s anti-discrimination law still lacks protections for campaign workers and volunteers.

These individuals deserve the same protection from sexual harassment as those who work in the state capitol. Hopefully, Illinois lawmakers will grant those protections before the year ends. If not, ICPR remains committed to keeping this a central issue among legislators throughout 2018 and into the next legislative session.

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