Preckwinkle pivots: Heard ‘rumor’ of aide’s behavior months before firing

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Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president. File Photo.| Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Kicking off her run for Chicago mayor on Sept. 20, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle fielded troubling questions about the forced resignation of her chief of staff for “inappropriate and disrespectful behavior,“ crediting herself with taking action within days.

The Hyde Park Democrat twice insisted she had no prior knowledge of any harassment or sexual abuse issues involving top aide John Keller before mid-September.

“No,” she told a reporter. “I have no tolerance for this. Bad behavior is bad behavior, no matter when and where it happens. What’s important here is my zero-tolerance policy.“

But on Thursday, Preckwinkle was sharing a different version of events, saying she had heard of “an unsubstantiated rumor” against Keller six months earlier.

Preckwinkle declined to answer the Chicago Sun-Times’ questions about the discrepancy, first reported by the Chicago Tribune.

She only released a brief statement saying: “In March, I received an unsubstantiated rumor. No victim came forward, and there was nothing I could act on. In September, I received an allegation that was corroborated, and I acted immediately.”

Preckwinkle has since asked the county inspector general to investigate Keller’s tenure.

Her office announced Keller’s abrupt departure the night of Sept. 18, issuing a vague description the next day of his alleged behavior and saying he “did not deny the allegation.”

Democratic sources previously told the Sun-Times the allegation stemmed from Keller’s time working for the campaign of Marie Newman, who lost a bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., in the March Democratic primary. Rumors of Keller’s behavior, which involved a woman working on Newman’s campaign, had been floating since then.

An unnamed woman told the Tribune that Keller grabbed her inappropriately as a group piled into a cab in River North on Election Night in 2016

“I keep telling myself, why didn’t I just, like, yell, ‘Stop touching me!’ in the cab,” she told the Tribune, adding that it “wasn’t something that I was able to do in the moment.”

Keller, who could not be reached for comment Thursday night, denied wrongdoing in the Tribune article.

“I apologize if I made her uncomfortable, but I never heard about this until it was brought to Toni,” Keller was quoted as saying.

The woman told a friend who had heard separate claims about Keller from the Newman campaign, and the allegations eventually made their way to one of Preckwinkle’s top political consultants, who brought them to her in March.

Soon after that, Keller told the Tribune that Preckwinkle called him into her office and, and though he told her he didn’t do anything, he offered to resign.

“I told him, ‘I don’t take actions against people on the basis of rumor,’ ” Preckwinkle told the Tribune this week. “I discipline people on the basis of facts. I’ve never fired anybody or disciplined anybody on the basis of an unsubstantiated rumor.”

Preckwinkle, who is also head of the Cook County Democratic Party, made no mention of the rumor when asked at her mayoral kick-off whether she knew of “any harassment or sexual abuse issues with Keller before [the previous] Friday.”

“No,” she said. “As I said, this allegation was brought to me on Friday. On Monday and Tuesday, we corroborated the allegation by talking to the victim and two witnesses, and I demanded his resignation. I have zero tolerance for this.”

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