Sexual harassment scandal upends statehouse

Local News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — Allegations of rampant sexual harassment in state politics have prompted denials and sparked quick legislative reaction from some of the most powerful figures in the capitol. 

One woman has already come forward with specific allegations, and according to Senator Karen McConnaughay (R-West Dundee), a flood of “27 separate complaints against members of the Illinois General Assembly” have been “withheld from the Commission.” The nature of those complaints remains a mystery as the files themselves are a closely guarded secret. 

On Tuesday, House Speaker Michael Madigan testified in an open committee hearing in support of a new bill aimed at curbing the troubling pattern of sexual harassment. 

“The amendment establishes new requirements on all units of government as well as lobbyists to maintain sexual harassment policies and requires that elected officials, staff and lobbyists undergo comprehensive sexual harassment training,” Madigan said. 

Lobbyist and victim’s rights advocate Denise Rotheimer leveled sexual harassment allegations against Senate Majority Caucus Chair Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago), who she claims threatened to kill her bill when he found out she had a girlfriend. Rotheimer presented Facebook messages and phone records to bolster her claim. 

“I had like no control in the situation. He had so much power over me and the mind games he played, the tactics he played, and he knew this was my heart,” Rotheimer testified.

“I ended up six weeks in a crisis,” she said, adding, “I lost 20 pounds. My hair fell out.”

Silverstein, who is married, denies the accusations, saying in an interview, “I would never have done anything like this. I’m not like this. I never, never have done anything like that. It’s not in my nature.”

Speaker Madigan, who sat within a few feet of Rotheimer as she recounted her story, told reporters afterwards that her claims “ought to be pursued, it ought to be investigated.”

Under normal circumstances, those investigations would be handled by the Legislative Inspector General, a watchdog position the General Assembly has left vacant for years. The office, commissioned in 2003, “receives and investigates complaints of violations of any law, rule or regulation or abuse of authority or other forms of misconduct by members of the General Assembly,” in order to “heighten the trust of the citizens of Illinois in the functions of their state government.”

Rotheimer reported her accusations to Senate President John Cullerton’s nearly a year ago, but her case still hasn’t been resolved.

Cullerton’s office said in a statement, “The Office of the Illinois Senate President was made aware of these accusations in late November 2016. Senior staff met with Senator Silverstein to let him know such allegations are taken seriously and that this would be reported to the Legislative Inspector General’s Office and Legislative Ethics Commission, which it was.”

Silverstein was allowed to continue in his leadership role as a ranking member of the Senate Democratic Caucus throughout the duration of this investigation — until today. In a press release issued Wednesday afternoon, Cullerton’s office announced Silverstein would step down as Majority Caucus Chair, a position that pays an extra $20,649 each year.

The Legislative Ethics Commission is comprised of eight lawmakers, four Republicans and four Democrats. Their last quarterly report was filed during the Quinn administration. 

The absence of a Legislative Inspector General has sparked some partisan accusations of their own. Representative Chad Hays (R-Catlin) says he and his GOP colleague Rep. Norine Hammond (R-Macomb) have recommended several names to the current and past chair of the committee, but none have been appointed. 

“It is outrageous that the position remains open despite our sincere and repeated efforts to move this process forward,” Hays said, pointing an accusatory finger at Speaker Madigan, who does not sit on the Legislative Ethics Commission.

“My read on the matter is that the Speaker has thwarted efforts to finalize this dynamic,” Hays said. “No rationale for foot dragging on this matter is acceptable. The length of time that the position has remained unoccupied is absurd.”

A spokesman for Speaker Madigan responded, saying, “Mr. Hays’ claim has no basis in fact.” 

The speaker’s office was aware of only one name briefly under consideration, a former state representative, but says the candidate’s poor reputation made them a poor fit for the job. Cullerton’s office says three candidates were offered a job within the last year, but each turned it down. 

Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown added, “The work of the Commission is done in large part on a confidential basis to prevent partisan attacks from becoming public.” 

Rotheimer is running for a seat in the House as a Republican in 2018. 

Senator Terry Link (D-Waukegan) chairs the Commission responsible for appointing the watchdog. Last week, Link responded to an open letter detailing rampant sexual harassment in the statehouse, saying, “If there is harassment going on, it should be stopped immediately. Everybody should be on warning that there will be zero tolerance around here for that.”

Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang (D-Skokie) also sits on the panel. He also chimed in last week, telling WCIA, “I have witnessed what might be called sexual harassment. I have intervened more than once in those situations.”

Lang also responded to McConnaughay’s startling statement that a slew of complaints have been withheld. 

“As Sen. McConnaughay noted in her statement, commission members were assured by staff that there were ‘no pending cases,'” Lang said. “I was told the same. Staff are not authorized to communicate existence of ‘complaints’ to commission members. A ‘complaint’ is not a ‘case’ until certified as such by the IG.” 

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