Two new proposals at the Illinois statehouse aim to hold lawmakers and other government officials accountable in cases of harassment or discrimination.
One measure would require city, county and other local governments to publish severance agreements with employees found guilty of misconduct on the government’s website and in local news sources for at least seven days. That would include the name of the employee receiving the payout, the dollar amount and an explanation of what the employee was accused of.
Publicizing this information could discourage severance payouts, according to the bills’ sponsor, state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills.
But state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, expressed concerns about the bill, arguing that a lot of thought must go into requiring publication of the offender’s name because it could dissuade victims from coming forward.
“Because that has lots of ramifications as it relates to later intimidation tactics, or recriminations or retaliations further in someone’s career,” Hutchinson said.
The bills come as state lawmakers continue to struggle with how to deal with sexual harassment in the wake of the #metoo movement. Hutchinson was among the more than 200 women and men who signed an open letter in the fall insisting “misogyny is alive and well” at the Illinois statehouse.
State Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, is the only legislator who has been publicly accused of harassment. In a report released last week, the legislative inspector general called his behavior “unbecoming of a legislator” but cleared him of any charges.
Hutchinson warned against attempting to make “sweeping changes” too quickly.
“This is one of those times when we need to dig in and go deep into what's happening across the country and really, honestly debate a very complicated topic that affects every single one of us,” Hutchinson said.
Springfield city attorney Jim Zerkle had additional questions over the practicality of requiring news publication in a city like Springfield that already makes settlement records public, calling it “an additional expense.” Currently any settlement amount in the municipality must be approved by vote of the Springfield City Council.
“They are already public through the City Council action and so on on votes,” Zerkle said. “I think it would be difficult to justify having to publish a case like that when you're not required to publish such things as a discrimination case or an accident case or some kind of a federal civil rights case or things of that nature.”
The second of McSweeney’s bills would prohibit taxpayer dollars from funding payouts to victims of sexual harassment by state legislators, mirroring a similar proposal on the federal level.
McSweeney hasn’t heard of any instance of taxpayer dollars being used in the state for sexual harassment settlements, but claims out of Washington D.C. brought the lawmaker to draft legislation.
“Since it’s happening in Washington (D.C.), I want to be very careful and I want to make sure this never happens in Illinois,” McSweeney said.
Rather than appropriate funds from Illinois tax dollars, the bill would require all payouts be funded from the guilty member’s office, a move McSweeney says will hold individuals in office personally responsible.
“Somebody that is guilty of sexual harassment should be punished, and they should pay for it themselves, not with taxpayer money,” McSweeney said.
California and New York are the only other states with pending legislation resembling the one McSweeney introduced to the House. So far, no state has passed the bill.
Similar legislation was introduced on the federal level to provide more transparency into the Treasury Department’s Judgement Fund, used for settlements of all kinds. The Congressional bill would require a breakdown of these payouts showing taxpayers exactly where and to whom their dollars went.
Both Illinois bills are set to get a hearing this week.
Task forces set up in both chambers in the fall could take up similar issues.
Following the recent allegations within the General Assembly, task forces were created to investigate and provide recommendations on how to prevent sexual discrimination and harassment across the state. A full report will be released by the task forces in December of this year.
“We're going to talk about it, and we're going to talk about it out loud and we're going to make it so that you can't necessarily pass a bill to stop everything that someone might do, but we can change the way people feel comfortable doing what they have been doing,” Hutchinson said. “And that's a key part of moving us forward, I think.”