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Silverstein: ‘Joking’ with woman was ‘stupid,’ ‘inappropriate,’ ‘off the wall’

Ira Silverstein, state Senate 8th district Democratic primary candidate and incumbent. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

State Sen. Ira Silverstein said he accepts the state legislative inspector general’s finding that he behaved in a “manner unbecoming a legislator” in his dealings with a woman whose legislation he was sponsoring, but in an interview Monday he quarreled with specific points on which the finding was based.

Silverstein also asserted for the first time that he met his accuser in public places because he was always worried “she might accuse me of something like this.”

Asked by the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board to explain what he’d done wrong in his relationship with victim rights advocate Denise Rotheimer, Silverstein said: “Inappropriate, maybe some stupid banter.”

Inappropriate in what way, he was asked.

“Maybe some joking around that people might take the other way,” Silverstein said.

In a report issued last month, legislative inspector general Julie Porter cleared Silverstein of sexual harassment allegations or “other unlawful conduct” in connection with his treatment of Rotheimer, who accused him of stringing along her legislative proposal while trying to romantically pursue her.

To back up her allegation, Rotheimer made public 444 pages of private Facebook messages between her and the veteran legislator, many of them exchanged late at night. These included flirtatious comments from him about wanting to find out if she was a true blond, to give her his favorite salami and about how he had dreamed about her the previous night.

Porter noted in her report that Silverstein “does not appear fully to accept that the [Facebook] messages went beyond joking around.”

In addition, Porter found that Silverstein “did not maintain an appropriate professional distance from the proponent of a bill he was sponsoring.”

That failure amounted to conduct “unbecoming a legislator” in violation of the state ethics act, but state law provides no sanctions for lawmakers in such instances, Porter reported.

“I don’t think my conduct was proper. I will admit when I’m wrong,” Silverstein told the Sun-Times.

When pressed, however, he also made it clear he still does not share Porter’s view of his “unbecoming” conduct.

He said he “did not go over every paragraph” of the inspector general’s report and doesn’t know what Porter meant about maintaining an appropriate professional distance.

“Maybe some of the texting was a little off the wall, I mean joking around. But [Rotheimer] would also joke around, too. We had a friendship, too. That’s it,” he said.

“She was very friendly, and I was friendly. There was never any kind of sexual contact or hugging or anything like that. Never,” Silverstein said.

“In fact, when she first came in my office, I was worried about this. So I always met her in public places. Because I like ice cream, we’d go out for ice cream or something. I was never alone with her because I was worried about this. That she might accuse me of something like this,” he said.

Rotheimer had accused Silverstein of meeting her outside the office in attempts to go on “dates.” She has never accused him of improper physical contact or propositioning her for sex.

Silverstein appeared before the Sun-Times Editorial Board to seek its endorsement in his Democratic primary re-election battle with three other challengers.

Rotheimer first raised her claims publicly at the height of the #MeToo scandal, when she appeared at a legislative hearing about sexual harassment in state government.

Silverstein said he doesn’t participate in any of the rowdy after-hours behavior often associated with Springfield.

Denise Rotheimer (pictured on Oct. 31, 2017) testifies before an Illinois House committee in Chicago. Rotheimer claims that Illinois State Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, sexually harassed her last year. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“Out of all the 177 people in Springfield, the joke is ‘Ira?’ I’m the boringest guy down there. I go home. After session I go to Dunkin Donuts. I go to Baskin Robbins. I don’t eat out because I keep kosher,” he said.

“But unfortunately the timing was right for [Rotheimer.] Politics is a matter of timing. She came across as that it was sexual harassment. There was no sexual harassment there,” he said.

Silverstein said his kids “have banned me for a lifetime from Facebook” over the incident.

Silverstein also said he has apologized, citing a letter he sent to his constituents after Porter cleared him of sexual harassment. But that letter contained no apology, and in an interview at the time with a Chicago Tribune columnist, he declined to offer one.