Editorial | Small step toward transparency

Editorial | Small step toward transparency

Don't expect the illusion of oversight to disappear in Springfield anytime soon.

On Wednesday, a female employee in Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan's office said that Madigan's chief of staff, Tim Mapes, bullied and sexually harassed her and others. Madigan immediately fired Mapes.

Two days later, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation aimed, among other things, at making it easier for Statehouse employees, like the woman in Madigan's office, to file harassment complaints.

So goes the new women's movement in Springfield, the one aimed at making it easier for victims of harassment to hold their tormentors accountable.

"This bill is a victory for the heroic women who have stepped forward to take on the culture of fear, abuse and retaliation that permeates too much of state government," Rauner said, who noted that "they have declared that the culture in Springfield must change."

Well, let's not get too carried away. While the goal Rauner cited is a good one, Illinois' culture of corruption is a perverse tradition, one that won't be altered by a handful of policy changes.

Take the legislation that was signed. As welcome as it is, it's hardly groundbreaking.

The changes it implements include:

— Allowing the legislative inspector general to conduct independent investigations into sexual harassment allegations without obtaining consent from members of the Legislative Ethics Commission.

— Creating an independent search committee to recommend candidates for the post of legislative inspector general.

— Bringing greater transparency to the management of ethics complaints.

— Making it possible to hire a full-time legislative inspector general, instead of the current part-time one, to more quickly investigate ethics complaints.

Regarding the first change, how much sense does it require to ask some of the foxes for permission to investigate one of the other foxes. Obviously, not a whole lot, because all of the foxes have an incentive to look out for each others' interests.

It's ridiculous for a complainant to have to go before a committee of legislators and get permission to look into alleged wrongdoing — whether it's sexual harassment or anything else — by one of their associates.

But that is the system that was in place, and it was no accident. It's just another clever device designed to create the illusion of oversight.

As far as the post of legislative inspector general goes, be skeptical about those who brag about the changes they've made. These are the same people who were content to allow Madigan to leave the position empty for nearly three years.

After all, if there's no investigator to investigate allegations of impropriety, what are the odds any impropriety will be found? That, too, was by design. The only reason Chicago lawyer Julie Porter was appointed to serve on a temporary basis is because of the sexual harassment allegations levied last year against state Sen. Ira Silverstein.

It's good to see the Legislature moving toward greater transparency in this process. It's been dominated far too long by secrecy, to the point that the inspector general's findings are, by law, confidential.

How can misbehaving legislators be held accountable by their constituents if the very information that might prompt them to do so is withheld from them? Again, this is all by design.

The Legislature, as a group and under the command of Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, prefers to keep the public in the dark. What voters don't know can't hurt members of the House and Senate.

The women who recently have raised complaints about their treatment at the hands of powerful politicos in the capitol have performed a public service in coming forward. But the beneficiaries of their action extend beyond these aggrieved parties or other women who may follow in their footsteps. That's because the Legislature is being forced to take action that will not make it easy — but somewhat easier — to deal with all kinds of inappropriate conduct.

Rauner was absolutely correct when he said the inspector general should have the authority to pursue any allegations of wrongdoing, not just sexual harassment, without commission approval. Indeed, that's just common sense, which is exactly why that approach is not yet the law.

Nonetheless, the legislation signed by Rauner represents a slight improvement in the status quo. Let's have more of the same.

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