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Advocate ignites harassment hearing, accuses senator of ‘mind games’

Denise Rotheimer testifies before an Illinois House committee in Chicago Tuesday on a sexual harassment bill. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Allegations against a Democratic state senator — and the loopholes that currently exist when it comes to reporting sexual harassment within state government — set an explosive tone as Illinois House members advanced a bill on Tuesday to target the rampant problem.

Denise Rotheimer, a victim rights advocate running for state representative as a Republican, testified before a House committee that state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, used “power” and “mind games” with her as she tried to advance legislation to help crime victims pay for legal care. She told the Sun-Times on Monday that Silverstein called her late at night frequently, constantly sent Facebook messages and met her to talk about the bill in unusual places, such as Millennium Park and an ice cream parlor.

She also accused Silverstein of killing her bill when he thought she had a boyfriend. Rotheimer said she felt like she had no control. Rotheimer provided the Sun-Times with hundreds of Facebook messages on Monday, which showed the two shared constant communication for several months.

“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 said. “What he was able to do in invading my privacy, my space.”

The Facebook exchanges showed the two frequently discussed ice cream. There were also multiple back-and-forth chats about exercise.

In one exchange, Silverstein suggested meeting to work on the bill at either Millennium Park or the “law library.” Rotheimer responded in a September 2016 message, “Park sounds better than the library.”

She said she told Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s office about the allegations, as well as one of her local legislators, state Sen. Melinda Bush. Cullerton’s office on Tuesday said it was made aware of the 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,” Cullerton spokesman John Patterson said in a statement, adding the investigation remains “open.”

State Rep. Linda Chapa Lavia of Aurora (left) at an Illinois House committee in Chicago Tuesday to hear testimony on a sexual harassment bill. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Reached by the Sun-Times on Tuesday, Silverstein apologized for making Rotheimer “uncomfortable” but categorically denied doing anything that would rise to the level of sexual harassment.

Silverstein said the behavior she described is “not in my blood.”

“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,” Silverstein said.

“We were friends, but that was about it. I was working with her on a bill. I was trying to help her. When she wanted to meet with me, we either met at a restaurant or somewhere in public. I’m always on guard with things like this.”

Silverstein recalled holding hearings on Rotheimer’s bill and holding meetings with the attorney general’s office in a failed attempt to find middle ground.

“I worked the bill as hard as I could, but she would not compromise,” he said.

Silverstein was asked whether he ever propositioned Rotheimer, threatened to put a hold on her bill or said, did or wrote anything that could be construed as sexual harassment or intimidation.

“No. Not that I know of. It’s not in my nature. It’s not in my blood. I was trying to help her. I was just trying to help her get this bill through,” he said.

Silverstein is married to Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th).

Ira Silverstein said he has “told her everything” about his dealings with Rotheimer and about the embarrassing allegations that made him the first Illinois lawmaker to be publicly accused of sexual harassment in the firestorm that has followed the Hollywood sex scandal.

“Debra knows what’s going on. I don’t hide anything from her. I told her everything that’s going on — the accusations and everything,” Ira Silverstein said.

“I’ve been up-front with my wife. I told her I have not done anything to sexually harass anybody. She believes me.”

As the explosive charges were made against her husband in Springfield, Debra Silverstein was at her seat in the City Council chambers listening to testimony during budget hearings.

She did not return calls or reply to text messages to her cell phone. Approached on the Council floor, she declined to comment on the allegations against her husband.

“Let the Ethics Commission decide what they want to do as opposed to trying it in the press,” Ira Silverstein said.

In addition to advancing the legislation, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan on Tuesday announced the creation of a task force to combat sexual harassment, led by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie. He said while he hopes the bill will pass in the House and the Senate next week, the task force will delve into long-term goals to combat the problem.

The bill would change the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act and the Lobbyist Registration Act to specifically prohibit sexual harassment; would require every constitutional officer, legislator, lobbyist and each unit of local government to adopt a sexual harassment policy that includes prohibition of sexual harassment; would require each state Inspector General authority to review allegations and submit any founded complaints to the applicable Ethics Commission which could then fine someone up to $5,000 for a violation of the prohibition on sexual harassment.

The Secretary of State’s Inspector General would investigate allegations against lobbyists. It would also require all constitutional officers, legislators, state employees and lobbyists to attend sexual harassment training and to annually submit to an ethics commission a report detailing plans for training and names of those who didn’t participate.

Speaker Michael Madigan, with Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, at an Illinois House committee in Chicago Tuesday. The committee heard testimony on a sexual harassment bill. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Madigan said complaints about sexual harassment were made to ethics officers in the past. Those officers serve purely as advisers. Those complaints were taken to the chair of the Legislative Ethics Commission, who could then take it to the full commission.

Typically complaints can go to the commission, which could then choose to follow up with the Legislative Inspector General’s office, which can then conduct an investigation and recommend actions to the committee. Harassment could also be reported directly to the inspector general’s office, although the state hasn’t had an acting inspector general since 2015.

The speaker acknowledged he was surprised about the allegations against Silverstein: “I think it’s pretty serious and I think it ought to be pursued immediately.”

The speaker also acknowledged that any time a complaint was brought to him, he would turn it over to the ethics officer, who would take “appropriate action.”

“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 won’t tolerate it in the Office of the Speaker,” Madigan said.

But will the new legislation change a “knock it off” culture?

“You’re going to have it in statute, mandatory training. You’ll have it in the statute that the matter is subject to fine,” Madigan said.

And his advice to legislators who perhaps thought they could get away with harassment: “Better knock it off because you’re going to get in big trouble. And you can ask a member of the Senate that question,” the speaker said.