SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A crime-victims advocate told an Illinois House committee Tuesday that a powerful state senator sexually harassed her last year as they were working together on legislation, causing her so much mental anguish that she dropped 20 pounds and lost her hair.
Denise Rotheimer, who's running for a House seat in 2018, told the Personnel and Pensions Committee that Chicago Democrat Ira Silverstein, the Senate's Majority Caucus Chair, sent her unwanted social media messages, called her late at night, described her as "intoxicating" and told her, "I like having meetings with you, because you're pretty to look at." It led to such emotional distress, she said, that she considered admitting herself to a hospital.
Rotheimer testified in Chicago on House Speaker Michael Madigan's legislation to require annual sexual harassment training for lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists working in the Capitol. She said Silverstein played "mind games" and "had so much power over me" while he sponsored legislation she championed that would have provided free legal representation to crime victims maneuvering sometimes-byzantine courts.
Silverstein, who is married, told The Associated Press that he could not remember whether he did the things Rotheimer alleged, but also suggested that she might have been unhappy because the legislation has not yet passed.
"There were no mind games, no power struggle," Silverstein said. "I was working the bill. That was my job, to work the bill. She might not like how bill was proceeding. Maybe that's the issue here."
"I apologize if I made her uncomfortable," he said.
Rotheimer said she complained to the Office of the Executive Inspector General, leading to a referral to Senate President John Cullerton. The Chicago Democrat's spokesman, John Patterson, said the office was made aware of the complaint in late November 2016.
"Senior staff (members) met with Sen. Silverstein to let him know such allegations are taken seriously and that this would be reported" to the Legislative Ethics Commission and its executive director.
"It is our understanding there is an open investigation," Patterson said.
But the position of legislative inspector general has been vacant for several years. Madigan said during the hearing that complaints in the interim have been handled by the ethics officer on his staff or referred to the legislative ethics commission.
Rotheimer, an Ingleside resident who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Grayslake Democratic Rep. Sam Yingling, formed a group called Mothers on a Mission to Stop Violence after her 11-year-old daughter was raped in 2001 by a man who plied the child with alcohol. Jasmine's Law in 2010 made alcohol, along with illicit drugs, an aggravating factor in extending sentences for sexual predators using it to intoxicate victims. Her daughter has spoken publicly about the assault.
The committee that heard Rotheimer's testimony Tuesday endorsed Madigan's legislation to require annual training on acceptable behavior . Madigan's bill emerged last week after an open letter demanding an end to harassment and intimidation under the Capitol dome garnered more than 200 signatures amid increased attention on allegations of sexual harassment and assault against powerful people such as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
"Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any workplace. This is particularly true in our Capitol, a building that belongs to every woman and man in Illinois," Madigan said in a statement released after the hearing. "Legislative changes are a critical step, but far from a final step. Ultimately, eliminating sexual harassment will require cultures to change."
Madigan announced he was assembling a task force chaired by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Democrat from Chicago, to "recommend further changes to combat workplace harassment both in our government and in the private sector."