Victim Rights Advocate Says Her Sexual Harassment Complaint About a Lawmaker Went Nowhere in Illinois Capitol

by | November 1, 2017

By Kim Geiger and Monique Garcia

A victims' rights advocate on Tuesday publicly accused a state senator of sexual harassment and said her complaint fell on deaf ears at the Capitol for nearly a year.

Denise Rotheimer, an activist for victims of violent crime who is running as a Republican for a Lake County Illinois House seat, told lawmakers at a hearing that Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein of Chicago made unwanted comments about her appearance, sent her hundreds of Facebook messages and placed midnight phone calls.

In an interview, Silverstein disputed the accusations, saying he apologizes "if I made her uncomfortable" but that he's waiting until the complaint process is concluded before saying anything more.

A spokesman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said "it is our understanding there is an open investigation" at the General Assembly's ethics investigations agency. The legislative inspector general's office, which has been without a permanent leader since mid-2014, operates largely in secret.

Rotheimer made the allegations during a Chicago hearing on a measure that would boost requirements for training for government officials about sexual harassment.

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan proposed the legislation last week after more than 200 people signed onto a letter circulated by women involved in Illinois politics that called for "challenging every elected official, every candidate, and every participant in our democratic process who is culpable" for a culture of sexual harassment.

The letter was inspired by the #MeToo social media campaign that gained prominence in the wake of widespread allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

As Madigan sat nearby, Rotheimer told lawmakers that Silverstein used the crime victim legislation she was advocating as "a carrot being dangled" over her. She said Silverstein told her she was "intoxicating" and said things like, "I like having meetings with you because you're pretty to look at."

At one point, she said, Silverstein killed the bill she was advocating -- legislation to provide legal representation for crime victims -- and later brought it back.

"He thought I had a boyfriend, and then once I explained to him I don't have a boyfriend, my bill came back alive," Rotheimer said. "So I knew the power that he had over my bill."

The measure never made it out of committee during the 2015-16 legislative session. Asked after Tuesday's hearing if Silverstein ever specifically asked her to do anything, Rotheimer said, "No."

"He more used the situation as a way to communicate with me, Facebook me, be friends with me, set up meetings and call them dates and have this whatever it is that -- it was completely unethical," she said.

Rotheimer said that in late November 2016, after it was clear that her bill would not be brought for a vote, she went to the Senate president's office and "explained what I had been put through."

"I told them what happened, my experience with Silverstein, how unethical everything was."

Rotheimer said she was told to file a complaint with the inspector general's office. She provided a Jan. 19, 2017, letter from the executive inspector general, which covers agencies under control of the governor. That office referred her complaint back to the Senate, saying "the nature of your allegation is such that it is more appropriately addressed by the Office of Illinois Senate President John Cullerton."

Cullerton spokesman John Patterson confirmed the Senate president's office "was made aware of these accusations in late November 2016" and said the office referred the matter to the inspector general for the legislature.

"Senior staff met with Sen. 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," Patterson said. "It is our understanding there is an open investigation."

The legislative inspector general's office is charged with looking into such complaints but has been operating for several years without an inspector general because lawmakers have been unable to agree on an appointee. The office answers to the Legislative Ethics Commission, a group of lawmakers appointed by legislative leaders. That commission is headed by Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan.

Link said the vacancy in the office's leadership has not prevented it from operating. He said staff members receive complaints and investigate those deemed worthwhile. Once an investigation is complete, the office must seek permission from the panel of legislators to take its findings to law enforcement such as the state's attorney or attorney general.

Link said he could not comment on any matters that have been referred to the inspector general or the ethics commission, nor could he say how many cases the inspector general receives or how many cases have been referred to law enforcement. "Nobody can talk about what goes on in that room," Link said.

Asked if it was unusual for a person to wait for a year or longer to hear back about a complaint, Link said "not necessarily."

"Some things take a long time," he said.

Rotheimer said she turned to state Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, for help getting a response to her complaint, but "nothing happened."

Bush said she was contacted by Rotheimer, who told her that she had been treated in an "inappropriate way" by Silverstein and raised concerns that her complaint was not being taken seriously by Cullerton's office.

Bush said she immediately called Cullerton, who said he was aware of the complaint and already had forwarded the matter and documents provided by to Rotheimer to the legislative inspector general.

Bush said after that she did not respond to subsequent calls from Rotheimer because she believed it was inappropriate given it had been referred to the appropriate authorities. "Anytime anybody alleges misconduct, the first thing I am going to do is go to the appropriate authorities. It is not my job to decide," Bush said.

Bush said she was "appalled" that the legislative inspector general's post has sat vacant for years. "We absolutely need to fill the legislative inspector general position, and I don't know why it has taken so long," Bush said.

Rotheimer's political activism began after her 11-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted. The attacker, who had given the girl hard alcohol before sexually assaulting her, was sentenced in 2003 to 7 1/2 years in prison, just 18 months more than the minimum sentence.

Rotheimer felt criminal justice laws were unfair to victims, so she lobbied for what's now known as "Jasmine's Law," which allows courts to impose longer sentences on those who commit sex crimes against minors when the perpetrators know or should know that their victims are under the influence of alcohol.

She also lost a federal lawsuit filed against Lake County prosecutors who she alleged had violated her daughter's rights in the assault case a decade earlier. And Rotheimer has protested against building new criminal courtrooms in Lake County.

Rotheimer first sought public office in 2008, losing a Lake County Board race while running as a Democrat. Last year she again ran for the board in a different district as a Republican but lost in the primary election.

In 2014 she ran for a House seat as an independent but was removed from the ballot. Now she's running for that same seat, which is held by Rep. Sam Yingling, a Democrat from Grayslake who beat back a well-funded Republican challenge last year in one of the state's most expensive contests.

Two other candidates also are seeking the Republican nomination in March. Joe Woodward, political director of the House Republican Organization, said the party has not backed a candidate.

Rotheimer said she decided to testify at Tuesday's hearing because she wanted to bring attention to her complaint.

"I want these Facebook messages to be presented. I want these phone calls and everything, all the communication between Silverstein and me, to be exposed because I want him to answer for it and to know that it is wrong, it is unconscionable and I for one do not tolerate it," Rotheimer said during her hearing testimony.

Rotheimer gave the Tribune what she said was a download of Facebook messages covering late June 2015 through late November 2016. The messages show repeated discussions of the legislation that Rotheimer was pushing, and the exchanges often veered into personal territory, with talk about topics like food, shopping, travel and religion.

Silverstein is married to 50th Ward Ald. Debra Silverstein. Approached by reporters at City Hall where she was attending budget hearings Tuesday, Ald. Silverstein declined to comment.

Before Rotheimer spoke Tuesday, Speaker Madigan took the rare step of testifying before the panel and taking lawmakers' questions. The committee advanced his bill, which could be considered in the House as soon as next week.

Asked later by reporters if he was aware of a pervasive culture of sexual harassment in Illinois politics, Madigan said, "There were instances where complaints were filed with the ethics officer, people, including legislators, were called in and told, 'You better knock it off because we don't tolerate it in the office of the speaker.'"

Madigan said he had heard Rotheimer's allegations "for the first time" at the hearing.

"It does not sound good," Madigan said. "I think it's a matter that ought to be pursued, it ought to be investigated. And I'm sure it will be."

Several other women whose work touches on politics and government also testified, with some offering tales of harassment by unnamed men. The testimony raised concerns about a lack of protections for women who operate in political environments such as fundraising or lobbying, where work is done outside of the office and the traditional avenues for filing complaints, like in a typical office environment, aren't available.

Rotheimer also raised that concern, saying her experience was evidence that the current system needs to be changed.

"I thought by filing a complaint, I was going to get an actual hearing," she said.

Chicago Tribune's John Byrne contributed. Garcia reported from Springfield.

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