Seeking to move past the latest scandals embroiling Democratic state lawmakers as he aims for a second term, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday called for the resignation of two state senators, one charged with bribery and the other facing questions over his treatment of women.
Pritzker’s call for longtime Sens. Emil Jones III of Chicago and Michael Hastings of Frankfort to resign came a day after the governor sought to portray political corruption and misconduct by elected officials as a bipartisan problem in Illinois.
But a sweeping federal corruption probe that became public in 2019 has almost exclusively focused 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 facing serious and credible charges.”
The governor’s rebuke and the allegations that prompted it create unwelcome tension among Democrats as they look 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 is at times tense, did not join the governor in calling for the resignations of the two senators, who until recently were on the Senate Democratic leadership team.
Republicans are hoping to use voter outrage over a string of federal charges and convictions against Democratic officials, including the landmark indictment in March of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan on bribery and racketeering charges, to increase 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 for allegedly accepting a $5,000 bribe from a red-light camera company executive to block unfavorable legislation and lying to the FBI. Jones, who assumed the seat of his father, former Senate President Emil Jones Jr., in 2009, was charged in a criminal information rather than an indictment, an indication he may intend to plead guilty.
Jones on Wednesday resigned his unpaid post as deputy leader for the Senate Democrats and his $11,098-per-year committee chair position. Hastings in August stepped down from an unpaid leadership position but retained the chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee, along with the associated stipend. Both legislators are paid a base salary of $72,906.
Jones and Hastings “should answer the charges and have their day in court,” Pritzker said.
“But in the best interests of their constituents, these men must resign from their offices. Resigning only 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 moved relatively quickly in calling for Jones to step aside, controversy has been swirling 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 southwest suburban 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 and saying the release “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal 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 claims” of domestic abuse.
Hastings said in a statement last month that the report was “intentionally leaked to the news media in a sinister attempt to influence the elections, hurt me politically by tarnishing my reputation, and turning the divorce around to blame the divorce on me by using these false domestic violence accusations.”
Separately, records from the Illinois comptroller’s officers show that the state paid $100,000 earlier this year to settle a 2019 lawsuit brought by Hastings’ former chief of staff Cassandra Matz that 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 the table and behaved menacingly during negotiations over legislation in Springfield in recent years.
“I have heard from many others with similar stories who are terrified by possible consequences of coming forward,” Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said in a statement posted to Twitter on Thursday.
She called Hastings “a liability to the state of Illinois and the lawmaking process.”
Hastings pushed back Thursday against the governor, calling the allegations in Pritzker’s statement “baseless and without merit.”
“I look forward to continuing to serve the best interests of the hardworking men and women of the south suburbs,” Hastings, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran, said in a statement. “The 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 take away a women’s fundamental right to choose.”
A campaign spokesperson for Sheehan, his GOP opponent, said the senator was deploying the MAGA label — a reference to former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan — “to distract from the variety of serious issues and accusations against him.”
Sheehan, a Plainfield police officer, echoed Pritzker in calling for his opponent’s resignation.
“Taxpayers should not have to continue paying for Sen. Hastings’ unacceptable behavior, and they definitely should not have to continue paying his Senate salary while he deals with these serious allegations,” Sheehan said in a statement.
Harmon’s campaign operation is not financially backing Hastings’ bid for reelection. A spokesman for Harmon said “the gravity of the accusations required immediate action and consequences, which is why the Senate president demanded and received resignations from their leadership posts.”
“Now it is up to these individuals and their constituents to determine their futures,” Harmon spokesman John Patterson said.
Harmon’s office has contacted the legislative inspector general to make sure 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 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 charges against Jones in which the Senate president said public officials must conduct themselves by 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 everything short of a federal indictment and conviction OK? Senate President Harmon should call on Sen. Hastings and Sen. Jones III to resign.”
Jones is the sixth state senator — and fifth Senate Democrat — to be hit with federal corruption charges since 2019.
The Tribune has reported that a seventh senator and sixth Democrat — state Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago — is under federal investigation.