SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The powerful head of the Illinois Democratic Party appointed an all-woman panel to choose its next executive director and the state's Republican governor signed ethics legislation on Friday as lawmakers scrambled to contain a growing scandal over sexual harassment.
Michael Madigan, the Democratic House speaker and party chairman, took the unusual step of naming 18 women to search for a replacement for his longtime aide Timothy Mapes, who was defrocked as party executive director amid allegations of inappropriate comments and dismissing complaints from women about their mistreatment.
Madigan is under increasing pressure over a sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed Springfield, not only involving Mapes but also the No. 3 House Democrat, Lou Lang, who stepped down from leadership posts over allegations of inappropriate conduct toward a woman activist who worked on legislation he sponsored.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law an overhaul of the process for investigating ethics complaints against legislators that gained momentum from the #MeToo movement and a failure to investigate complaints in the past.
Mapes, the speaker's chief of staff for a quarter-century, resigned that job and his party post Wednesday, hours after a Democratic staffer accused him of inappropriate comments and disinterest in harassment complaints she made.
Serving on the search committee are the 18 women who are members of the Democratic State Central Committee. Madigan said the members "recognize the need for a better culture throughout Illinois government and politics." Madigan is often referred to as the most powerful politician in Illinois because he is the nation's longest-serving state House speaker and has also heads the Democratic party, which he uses to dole out campaign funding to allies.
Madigan has faced criticism that he has not effectively handled harassment complaints in his political organization and that Madigan allies retaliated against a Democratic House member for her outspoken views on the matter.
Last week, a legislative activist complained of sexual harassment against Lang, who called the allegations "absurd" but relinquished his post of deputy majority leader.
The ethics law aims at cutting through bureaucracy and secrecy surrounding the Legislative Ethics Commission and its inspector general.
"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 in a statement.
The plan was developed by anti-sexual harassment task forces in each house after it was revealed that the job of inspector handling harassment complaints had been vacant for more than two years and lawmakers on the ethics commission could effectively block investigations.
"There have been complaints that the fox is guarding the henhouse," said state Rep. Melinda Bush, who sponsored the legislation.
Under the new law, the inspector general could initiate investigations of sexual harassment without first vetting the evidence with the commission, composed of lawmakers chosen by legislative leaders.
Rauner called out two "flaws" in the plan. He said the inspector general should have freedom to pursue any investigation without commission approval, not just those alleging sexual harassment. And he said no legislator should serve on the commission.
"Illinois has one of the nation's highest rates of public corruption," Rauner said, "and Illinoisans have the lowest confidence in their government compared to citizens of every other state."