Pritzker is calling on two Democratic state senators to resign

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In an effort to move past recent scandals involving Democratic state lawmakers as he aims for a second term, Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday called for the resignations of two state senators, one accused of bribery and the other facing questions about his treatment of women.

Pritzker’s call for longtime senators Emil Jones III of Chicago and Michael Hastings of Frankfort to resign came a day after the governor sought portraying political corruption and misconduct by elected officials as a dual political problem in Illinois.

But a sweeping federal corruption probe that became public in 2019 has focused almost exclusively on Democrats who control state government, putting Pritzker and other party leaders on the defensive.

“Integrity is essential to public service, and corruption for personal gain and abuse in private or public is unacceptable,” Pritzker said in a statement Thursday. “Illinoisans deserve to have elected leaders who are focused on representing them — not on holding office when faced with serious and credible allegations.”

The governor’s rebuke and the allegations that prompted it are creating unwelcome tension among Democrats as they seek to maintain their dominance in Springfield, including a 41-18 majority over Republicans in the Illinois Senate in the fall election. Jones is unopposed on the Nov. 8 ballot, but Hastings faces GOP challenger Patrick Sheehan of Lockport.

Hastings issued a defiant statement in response to Pritzker, while Senate President Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat whose relationship with the governor has been strained at times, did not join the governor in calling for the two senators, who until recently on the Senate Democratic Leadership Group.

Republicans hope to use voter outrage over a series of federal indictments and convictions against Democratic officials, including the landmark indictment in March of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan on bribery and racketeering charges, to boost their presence at the Capitol.

Jones, who did not respond to a request for comment and is scheduled to be arraigned Friday, was charged Tuesday with allegedly accepting a $5,000 bribe from an executive at a red-light camera company to block unfavorable legislation and lying to the FBI . Jones, who took over the seat from his father, former Senate President Emil Jones Jr., in 2009, was charged in a criminal information rather than an indictment, an indication that he may intend to plead guilty.

Jones resigned Wednesday from his unpaid post as deputy leader of Senate Democrats and his $11,098-a-year committee chairmanship. Hastings in August resigned from an unpaid leadership position, but retained the chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee along with the accompanying stipend. Both legislators make a base salary of $72,906.

Jones and Hastings “should answer to the charges and have their day in court,” Pritzker said.

“However, in the interest of their constituents, these men must step down from their offices. Merely stepping down from their leadership roles falls short of what the public should expect. I want to send a clear message to the people of Illinois: Corruption and abuse have no place here.”

While Prizker relatively quickly called on Jones to step aside, controversy has swirled around Hastings for nearly two months. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the discrepancy or why he chose to act now on Hastings.

Hastings, who took office in 2013, has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but his estranged wife last year accused him of domestic abuse, according to court documents.

Police in the southwest suburb of Frankfort have denied the Tribune’s request for documents related to the alleged incident, citing exemptions from releasing records in cases where no arrest was made, saying the release “would constitute an unjustified violation of privacy.”

Hastings has filed a lawsuit against the Frankfort Police Department, alleging that someone in the department or Will County released “a fabricated police report with false allegations” of domestic abuse.

Hastings said in a statement last month that the report was “deliberately leaked to the news media in a nefarious attempt to influence the election, hurt me politically by tarnishing my reputation and reverse the divorce to blame me for the divorce by using these false accusations of domestic violence.”

Separately, records from Illinois comptroller officials show the state paid $100,000 earlier this year to settle a 2019 lawsuit filed by Hastings’ former chief of staff Cassandra Matz, who alleged harassment and retaliation.

And in an interview with public radio station WBEZ earlier this month, environmental lobbyist Jen Walling said Hastings had yelled at her, pounded on the table and made threats during legislative hearings in Springfield in recent years.

“I’ve heard from many others with similar stories who are terrified of the potential consequences of coming forward,” Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said in a statement posted to Twitter Thursday.

She called Hastings “a liability to the state of Illinois and the legislative process.”

Hastings pushed back against the governor on Thursday, calling the allegations in Pritzker’s statement “baseless and without merit.”

“I look forward to continuing to serve the interests of the hardworking men and women of the south suburbs,” Hastings, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran, said in a statement. “Voters can choose between a public servant who has selflessly served his country and community for 25 years, or a MAGA extremist who wants to strip women of their basic right to vote.”

A campaign spokesman for Sheehan, his GOP opponent, said the senator used the MAGA label — a reference to former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan — “to distract from the many different serious questions and allegations against him. “

Sheehan, a Plainfield police officer, echoed Pritzker in calling for his opponent’s resignation.

“Taxpayers should not continue to pay for Senator Hastings’ unacceptable behavior, and they certainly should not continue to pay his Senate salary while he deals with these serious allegations,” Sheehan said in a statement.

Harmon’s campaign operation is not financially supporting Hastings’ re-election bid. A spokesman for Harmon said, “the seriousness of the allegations demanded immediate action and consequences, which is why the Senate President demanded and received dismissals from their leadership positions.”

“Now it’s up to these individuals and their constituents to decide their future,” Harmon spokesman John Patterson said.

Harmon’s office has contacted the legislative inspector general to ensure the office is aware of the allegations against Hastings and offered to cooperate in any investigation.

Pritzker’s opponent in the November election, Republican Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, had criticized the governor on Wednesday for not immediately calling on Jones to resign.

The state GOP leveled similar criticism at Harmon on Thursday, pointing to his statement in response to the allegations against Jones, in which the Senate president said public officials must conduct themselves to a “high ethical standard.”

“What is this ‘high ethical standard’ in today’s Democrat-controlled Senate?” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy said in a statement. “Is anything short of a federal indictment and conviction OK? Senate President Harmon should call on Senator Hastings and Senator Jones III to resign.”

Jones is the sixth state senator — and the fifth Senate Democrat — to face federal corruption charges since 2019.

The Tribune has reported that a seventh senator and sixth Democrat — state senator Elgie Sims of Chicago – is under federal investigation.

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

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