Kennedy seeks independent harassment probes — and so do Madigan’s appointees

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Illinois gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy speaks before Our Revolution Illinois, Chicago Teachers Union, MoveOn, Progressive Democrats of America and other organizations for the Progressive Gubernatorial Forum on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy wants the Democratic Party and its leaders to steer clear of handling sexual harassment investigations within political campaigns — saying it’s high time an independent board tackles a toxic culture for women.

Kennedy was among the first of candidates to criticize Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s handling of sexual harassment claims made by Alaina Hampton, who worked for Madigan’s 13th Ward Democratic organization.

And a trio of powerful women Madigan appointed to a statewide harassment panel also on Monday alleged their own independence, saying there won’t be any oversight by Madigan or the Democratic Party.

Kennedy told the Sun-Times a pledge released by the Illinois Democratic County Chairman’s Association last week doesn’t go far enough. The pledge urged campaign staffers to understand what sexual harassment is and to report it to the state’s Department of Human Rights or the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

“I think it focuses on campaign and not on the party or the party infrastructure, where all of the abuses are emanating from,” Kennedy said

And the Chicago businessman also criticized the lack of a plan by Republicans: “It doesn’t exist.”

The state GOP shot back that Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider last weekend announced the creation of the Task Force on Sexual Harassment Policies and Prevention to enact guidelines for reporting cases of sexual harassment and to increase awareness among Republican candidates and staff and volunteers. The task force would then make recommendations to the State Central Committee for approval in coming weeks.

“We look forward to working thoughtfully and collaboratively with Citizens for Rauner, the House Republican Organization, the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee, and other Republican committees to ensure all Republican campaigns in Illinois have strong protections against sexual harassment and discrimination,” state party spokesman Aaron DeGroot said in a statement.

Kennedy said the issue is more complicated than it may seem.

“We need to get to the culture of fear in Illinois.”

Kennedy, an heir to the Kennedy political dynasty, says he wants the Illinois State Board of Elections to oversee an “independent committee” that would handle harassment claims. That would include a group of four “outside legal counselors — two Democrats and two Republicans — to investigate claims of harassment.

“The problem is that the party sends over operatives to be around the campaign to help … and no one is responsible for them,” Kennedy said.

The plan targets not only people working for political campaigns, but also lobbyists. Lobbyists working for campaigns would have to register as an agent of the campaign so they can be held accountable, he said. Kennedy said lobbyist involvement in campaigns creates an “imbalance of power,” since the campaigns cannot manage any bad behavior.

Any campaign employees, consultants or interns who believes they’ve been sexually harassed would be able to report a complaint to the committee directly, under Kennedy’s plan. Complaints would be remain confidential. And a final report would be required within 30 days of the first complaint being filed. If the committee chooses not to participate, the person filing the complaint can go to the Department of Human Rights.

If a person is found guilty of harassment, the fine would be levied against the “principal for whom the offending individual is an agent,” including a campaign, party organization, company or organization for whom a lobbyist is under contract.

Both J.B. Pritzker and state Sen. Daniel Biss have also vowed to fight against sexual harassment in politics. Pritzker last week in a statement said women shouldn’t be forced to accept sexual harassment “as the price of admission to a career in politics.” Biss has said the most recent allegations within Madigan’s political organization are “further evidence of the larger culture of misogyny that must be addressed.”

Also Monday, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos and state Rep. Carol Ammons released a letter they sent to Madigan, as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, outlining the mission of their panel. Madigan announced the Anti-Harassment, Equality and Access Panel within days of coming fire for his handling of the Hampton situation.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza addressing the Sun-Times Editorial Board last year. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza addressing the Sun-Times Editorial Board last year. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“After discussing the scope of this project, we have determined that, for the sake of maintaining the integrity of our work, this panel must be completely independent from any oversight beyond the three of us as equal co-chairs,” the letter said. “While we expect the cooperation of the Democratic Party of Illinois in working to implement our recommendations, we believe that achieving the level of independence we are committed to requires us to fund this effort ourselves.”

The group said they plan to hire their own staff “without input” from the Democratic Party.

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