Watchdog: State Senator Cleared of Harassment, But Acted Inappropriately | WBEZ
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Watchdog: State Senator Cleared of Harassment, But Acted Inappropriately

A blockbuster ethics complaint against a Northwest Side state senator ended Thursday without sexual harassment allegations being substantiated, but a legislative inspector general still derided his behavior as “unbecoming of a legislator.”

The allegations of wrongdoing against longtime Democratic state Sen. Ira Silverstein came during an open legislative hearing last October, when a victims-rights advocate publicly accused him of sexually harassing her. The case helped ignite a discussion about a pervasive culture of sexual harassment in Springfield and Illinois politics and prompted state lawmakers temporarily to fill a vacant inspector general’s post in order to handle a backlog of harassment complaints.

The advocate, Denise Rotheimer, publicly released an emoji-laden, 444 printed page cache of awkward and sometimes flirtatious Facebook messages between the two, from 2015 and 2016. At the time, Silverstein was sponsoring legislation on her behalf.

While Special Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter found the senator’s behavior did not meet the legal definition of sexual harassment, she nonetheless said he allowed a “more-than-just professional relationship” to flourish.

“He correctly acknowledges that he displayed poor judgment and that his conduct was not becoming of a legislator. He is extremely contrite about the harm that he has caused to his family,” Porter wrote in a 25-page report released Thursday. “But he does not appear fully to accept that the messages went beyond ‘joking around,’ were unprofessional, and created at least the appearance that he had a romantic interest in Rotheimer.”

In one of the more egregious parts of their Facebook interactions, Silverstein remarked in a November 2016 message to Rotheimer about his intent to “check to see if u r a true blond.”

Porter reported that Silverstein, under questioning, said “he was talking about checking the roots of Rotheimer’s hair (because grey hair and dying hair had been a repeated topic of conversation for them).”

Silverstein is trying to fend off a challenge to his nominating petitions and retain a spot on the March 20th primary ballot. For him, Porter’s findings — as harsh as they may be — still represent a victory of sorts, because she did not find merit in Rotheimer’s central sexual harassment accusation.

“I’m very grateful that we have an independent inspector general who saw the facts for what they were,” Silverstein said in a brief interview with WBEZ. “My priorities are now my family and my re-election.”

In Porter’s report, she recommended that Silverstein undergo “counseling” by the Senate Democrats’ ethics officer and that her report containing less-than-complimentary findings against the accused senator be made public, which they were.

Porter, who interviewed 20 witnesses as part of her investigation into Rotheimer’s complaint, stressed that she took Rotheimer’s perspective on the tone of the Facebook interactions “seriously.” But Porter also noted that Rotheimer appeared to be a willing participant in many of the messaging sessions spanning hundreds of printed pages over 17 months.

“In the communications available to me,” Porter wrote, “there are dozens of instances where Rotheimer initiates, prolongs and deepens the intimacy of the discussions. She repeatedly compliments and flirts with Silverstein (e.g., ‘You’re cute,’ ‘You’re funny,’ ‘You always make me smile,’ ‘I like it when you are you and not a politician’). If one looks at the messages from Silverstein’s perspective, she was as interested in friendly conversation as he was, and she encouraged such exchanges to continue.”

Rotheimer angrily dismissed Porter’s findings on Thursday.

“Do I think her investigation was thorough and complete? No,” Rotheimer said.

Whether Porter’s report carries any political impact against Silverstein is unclear. Four challengers emerged against him after Rotheimer went public with her allegations last fall. Silverstein still hasn’t cemented his place on the March 20 primary because of an objection against his nominating petitions. Another rival also has an unresolved objection against his nominating petitions.

But Rotheimer more than implied that she is not ready to let her charges against Silverstein rest regardless of what Porter found.  

“I’m going to wait until she puts out her findings before I put out what I have, and I’ve got other things,” Rotheimer said, without specifying.

Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @davemckinney.

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