Springfield’s scourge: Recent spate of federal charges and accusations of abusive behavior highlights ongoing problems

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s extraordinary call last month that two fellow Democrats resign from the Illinois Senate — one for alleged bribery and the other over accusations he acted inappropriately toward women — underscores two major questions that for years have plagued Springfield.

First, will corruption in Illinois politics ever reach an end point? And second, will the culture in the state’s capital that five years ago triggered a series of #MeToo scandals ever be fully addressed?

Raising the issues in an election year, Pritzker sought to use his influence to seek the resignations of state Sens. Emil Jones III, who is accused of taking a $5,000 bribe tied to a red-light camera firm, and Michael Hastings, who has faced accusations of domestic abuse from his then-wife. Neither man has stepped down.

On corruption, both Pritzker and Republican challenger Darren Bailey suggested action next year might be taken in the General Assembly even though neither offered anything close to a substantive plan during their recent debate. Bailey said more transparency and cutting benefits for lawmakers when they are charged with crimes — rather than convicted — “would solve it,” and Pritzker offered even fewer specifics when he said more should be done while acknowledging three ethics reform packages he’s signed into law haven’t been enough.

On addressing the lingering issues of harassment and bad behavior in Springfield, one veteran Chicago Democrat said this week she’s pushing for an anti-bullying law that would be added to the ban on sexual harassment and mandated training for lawmakers, staff and lobbyists that were put in place following the #MeToo scandals that began in 2017.

State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz said she intends to propose legislation as soon as the lame-duck period before a new legislative session begins in mid-January. She said bullying “happens as much — if not more” than sexual harassment in Springfield, and that more needs to be done to address the statehouse atmosphere and workplaces throughout Illinois.

“It gets complicated under the dome,” said Feigenholtz, pointing to the Capitol environment. “It gets very complicated.”

Another Democratic senator said that — since the #MeToo reckoning at the state Capitol — there seems to be less “actual sexual kind of aggression.” But there is still “bullying behavior,” said the lawmaker, who asked not to be named. “It’s aggressive power behavior, and that definitely is directed more at women than it is at men.”

The two stubborn issues loom over the General Assembly despite warning signs that arose around House Speaker Michael Madigan for years, from conflicts of interest that the Tribune identified a decade ago in its “Madigan Rules” series to sexual harassment scandals that rocked the Chicago Democrat five years ago to the federal indictments against Madigan in the ComEd bribes-for-favors probe.

While Pritzker magnified the political crisis by calling for the resignations, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park did not join the governor in asking the two members of his overwhelming 41-18 Democratic majority caucus to resign. The two senators did give up unpaid posts on Harmon’s leadership team.

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State Sen. Emil Jones III, D-Chicago, presents cemetery reform legislation before the Senate Executive Committee at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on Dec. 13, 2011. He has held his seat since 2009. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Jones, the son of former Senate President Emil Jones Jr., is running unopposed for reelection. He allegedly accepted a $5,000 bribe from a red-light camera company executive in exchange for killing legislation that went against the firm’s interests. He has pleaded not guilty.

Jones became the ninth recent member of the Illinois General Assembly to be charged with federal crimes in the past three years. That list includes five of Jones’ former colleagues in the Senate — Democrats Martin Sandoval of Chicago, Thomas Cullerton of Villa Park, Terry Link of Vernon Hills, Annazette Collins of Chicago and Sam McCann of Plainview, a onetime Republican who ran for governor in 2018 under the Conservative Party banner — as well as Madigan and ex-state Reps. Luis Arroyo and Eddie Acevedo, all of Chicago. The Tribune has also reported that Democratic state Rep. Thaddeus Jones of Calumet City is under federal investigation, and Democratic state Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago was approached by federal authorities investigating potential influence peddling.

Sen. Michael Hastings speaks during a discussion on health care at a Senate hearing at the Illinois Capitol building in Springfield on April 7, 2022.

Sen. Michael Hastings speaks during a discussion on health care at a Senate hearing at the Illinois Capitol building in Springfield on April 7, 2022.
(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Hastings, who faces Republican challenger Patrick Sheehan of Lockport, has disputed accusations of bad behavior and has not been charged with a crime. Separately, records from the Illinois comptroller’s office show the state paid nearly $150,000 to settle and cover costs of a 2019 lawsuit brought by Hastings’ former female chief of staff, who alleged retaliation as well as race and gender discrimination.

Hastings also has received criticism from longtime Springfield lobbyist Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. She told the Tribune that during negotiations on several occasions over the last five years Hastings became “extremely hostile” and flashed “hair-trigger anger.”

“He’d be fine, he’d be fine, he’d be fine. He’d blow up,” Walling recalled. “He would do things like stand up, get in your face, pound on tables, etc. So it was a very uncomfortable negotiation.”

Hastings’ spokesman Ray Hanania said the senator denies such behavior with women, adding that the accusations are a “cheap shot” and that the use of allegations arising from his divorce proceedings amounted to “playing politics.”

But the accusations against Hastings underscore concerns that a problem persists in Springfield despite all the talk in the Capitol about not tolerating behavior that some consider out of bounds.

Feigenholtz said employees should be protected from “non-sexual harassment” and a “hostile work environment harassment,” problems she calls “pervasive everywhere, including Springfield.”

Perhaps most telling is that Feigenholtz still sees a need for more safeguards even as the General Assembly approaches the five-year anniversary of former Speaker Madigan holding a hearing on Halloween 2017 for the anti-sexual harassment bill that ultimately passed.

Illinois general election 2022: A guide for voters on the midterms, including where to vote, key dates and highest-profile issues ]

That hearing took place only days after an open letter began circulating around Springfield that outlined the Capitol’s often demeaning conditions for women. And during the hearing, a victim’s advocate accused then-Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Democrat from Chicago, of sexual harassment.

Maryann Loncar, left, and victim rights advocate Denise Rotheimer hold a news conference in 2018 in Springfield during which Loncar alleged abuse by state Rep. Lou Lang. An investigation cleared Lang.

Maryann Loncar, left, and victim rights advocate Denise Rotheimer hold a news conference in 2018 in Springfield during which Loncar alleged abuse by state Rep. Lou Lang. An investigation cleared Lang. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Denise Rotheimer, an activist for victims of violent crime, testified Silverstein made unwanted comments about her appearance, including describing her as “intoxicating,” called her at midnight and sent her hundreds of Facebook messages. The episode exposed how Rotheimer’s complaints, and those from dozens of others about bad behavior in Springfield, languished because lawmakers had allowed the legislative inspector general position to stay vacant for years.

While a special legislative watchdog determined Silverstein did not engage in sexual harassment but “did behave in a manner unbecoming of a legislator,” Rotheimer charged that the system was “rigged” to protect lawmakers and feared women would be discouraged from turning in lawmakers if they only get a “slap on the hand.” Silverstein eventually lost his reelection bid.

The #MeToo accusations got closer to Madigan in February 2018 when campaign worker Alaina Hampton accused Madigan lieutenant Kevin Quinn of sexual harassment and released to the Tribune a string of inappropriate text messages he sent during a period in which he was giving her political assignments.

Speaker Madigan cuts political worker loose over inappropriate advances to campaign worker ]

Madigan ousted Quinn, the brother of 13th Ward Ald. Marty Quinn, but Hampton sued Madigan’s political organizations, charging she was blackballed for reporting the misbehavior. She later reached a $275,000 settlement — the bulk of which went to lawyers. Weeks after Hampton first came forward, Madigan kicked out of his political organization a former legislative staffer who was accused by a female lawmaker of abusive behavior during campaign activities.

Even though Madigan acknowledged he should have done more to address the overall dynamics, he dismissed questions about whether a culture of inappropriate behavior flourished on his watch, saying “at the leadership level we don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior, we just don’t tolerate it.”

But just before and after the spring legislative session ended in 2018, two others close to Madigan were hit with accusations.

State Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie, was accused by a marijuana advocate of sexual harassment. Though Lang stepped down as a deputy majority leader, he denied the claims and later said an investigation by the legislative inspector general vindicated him. The IG closed the case, noting the “preponderance of the evidence did not support” the allegations. Lang’s accuser, Maryann Loncar, chose not to participate and called the probe a “joke.”

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Timothy Mapes, former chief of staff to House Speaker Michael Madigan, departs the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse after a hearing in his federal perjury case on Oct. 13, 2022. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Less than a week later, Tim Mapes, one of Madigan’s closest aides, also was accused of sexual harassment after a clerk who helped track legislation, Sherri Garrett, said he oversaw a “culture of sexism, harassment and bullying that creates an extremely difficult working environment.”

Mapes — who was Madigan’s chief of staff in the House, the House clerk and the executive director of the state Democratic Party that Madigan headed — was out of all three jobs within hours of the allegations even though Mapes denied them. Mapes appeared in court Thursday on unrelated charges of lying to a federal grand jury in the ComEd scandal. He’s pleaded not guilty.

An outside investigation commissioned by Madigan and released in 2019 by former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey found sexual harassment, bullying and fear of retaliation for speaking out was prevalent in the Capitol. While chastising Mapes, Hickey also uncovered a “purported culture of negative treatment that faced people who were perceived to challenge Speaker Madigan on any issue.”

Madigan, pointing to changes he’d made, said he had “improved protections for victims of harassment in both my office and across my political organizations” and that he was committed to “ensuring that anyone who reports a complaint is protected, they are treated fairly and that everyone has a safe and welcoming environment.”

But behind the scenes a starkly different narrative raised questions about Madigan’s sincerity.

While Madigan publicly distanced himself from Kevin Quinn after he was ousted for his harassing texts to Hampton, Madigan’s allies were working to help raise money for Quinn by giving him contracts with utility lobbyists, the Tribune reported. A Madigan spokeswoman at the time said the speaker was “not part of” an effort to help Quinn, but federal prosecutors earlier this year released records that Madigan knew about the payments ahead of time.

Feds investigating $10,000 in checks from ComEd lobbyists to ousted Madigan operative ]

In an email this week, Hampton said Pritzker’s decision to call for a resignation is an “indicator that elected officials are being more proactive in taking harassment and bullying claims seriously,” calling it a “vast improvement” from when Madigan was in power, and said Feigenholtz’s anti-bullying proposal is a “great start.”

“However,” said Hampton, who is now studying global affairs at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, “there is always room for improvement. Often the changes made to legislation are only a Band-Aid when our legislators should be finding the root of the problem and demanding more ethical and appropriate behavior from their colleagues at all times. We shouldn’t only be looking for solutions when serious allegations are made. We should constantly seek ways to improve workplace safety.”

In last week’s debate, Bailey and Pritzker acknowledged criminal cases and ethics questions continually dog Springfield.

“We start electing honorable men and women, and we get rid of this problem,” Bailey said. He blamed the Democrat-dominated Capitol with failing to act decisively: “In a Democrat supermajority and under Gov. Pritzker, has anything been done? Nope.”

In turn, Pritzker said laws need improvement every year to prevent ethics violations but said Jones had been “held accountable by the laws on the books,” though not noting Jones was charged under federal, not state, law.

Senate Republican leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods has called the governor “hypocritical” because his “failure to lead” enables corruption to permeate the state. His GOP troops have unsuccessfully sought to expand a series of state laws, including adding bribery and official misconduct to charges that could be incorporated in a racketeering case.

Despite experiencing “toxic and abusive behavior” over the years, Walling said Springfield’s overall atmosphere is better than five years ago when the #MeToo movement first shook the Capitol.

“I do think that things are improving,” Walling said, “but it is still not where it needs to be.”

rlong@chicagotribune.com

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

@RayLong

@PetrellaReports

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October 14, 2022 at 05:25AM

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