SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers could not tap taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment complaints under legislation that moved to the House floor Wednesday.
Officials with the General Assembly claim it’s never happened in Illinois, but Rep. David McSweeney wants to avoid cases such as those involving members of Congress whose use of tax dollars to cover settlements that were exposed after the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct.
The Democratic-controlled Executive Committee endorsed McSweeney’s measure unanimously.
The Barrington Hills Republican said he consulted staff members for the House and Senate about whether the public dole has ever been the source of payouts for settling lawsuits or complaints for sexual harassment, retaliation or discrimination.
“They’re not aware of any, but I want to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future, as it’s happening in Congress,” McSweeney said after the committee hearing.
In December, The Associated Press requested documents related to harassment complaints for the past decade under the Freedom of Information Act, but was told in some cases it needed to provide specifics.
Amid a series of misconduct allegations against powerful people in politics, entertainment and the media late last year, several members of Congress were either forced to resign or abandon plans to run for re-election. It was revealed in news reports that some of the officeholders had used taxpayer money to settle complaints by former staff members.
In Illinois, House Speaker Michael Madigan has been on the defensive in the past month over criticism of his handling of sexual harassment complaints against two employees of his political campaigns who have since been fired. The Chicago Democrat released a list last week of nine incidents of sexual harassment in his state legislative office in the past five years that were investigated, along with their resolutions. No complaint involved the speaker, his lawyer said later. But the list didn’t include several categories of complaints, such as those made against lawmakers themselves.
On Tuesday, Madigan released a statement he gave to Democratic House members that forbade them from making any sexual comments or advances toward staff members.
“It is clear from my discussions that staff view you as their superiors or supervisors, and with that you are in positions of power over them. This dynamic is ripe for potential harassment,” the statement said. “If I become aware of any complaints against a member by staff, or another member, I will personally get involved to put an end to it.”
The AP’s FOIA request in December sought documents that detailed any complaints in the past decade against lawmakers, who those legislators were, any that were settled with monetary payments and the amount of the settlements, and any additional information.
The Senate said it had no records in response to the request.
The FOIA officer for the House said the AP would have to identify individual cases, noting that the FOIA does not require public officials to “interpret” documents to determine whether they’re applicable to a request. The officer added that the chamber had no documents about “any records of payments made to resolve or settle” misconduct allegations.
The House representative cited a FOIA exemption for requests that are “unduly burdensome” on a public body in responding to a request for correspondence and other documents related to allegations of misconduct.