An Illinois lawmaker accused of sexual harassment by a victim rights advocate represented the woman’s father in at least two legal disputes while pushing her bill in Springfield and as the alleged sexual misconduct occurred, WBEZ has found.
This interaction between state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, and activist Denise Rotheimer represents a new wrinkle in a case that has put a spotlight on sexual harassment in Illinois politics, imperiled the North Side lawmaker’s political career, and could threaten his law license.
In late October, Rotheimer released a massive trove of private Facebook messages from June of 2015 through November 2016. She said the messages detailed repeated sexual harassment by the 17-year lawmaker as she sought his help on legislation to compensate crime victims for any legal fees they incur.
Sprinkled opaquely throughout the 444 printed pages of personal notes between Rotheimer and Silverstein are repeated references to what she characterized as “frivolous litigation” directed at her father.
“I have no words to describe the agony of this case,” she wrote Silverstein in a December 2015 private Facebook message.
Through court records, WBEZ has found that litigation in the Cook County Circuit Court’s probate division. The 2015 case involves her father, Phillip Rotheimer, who is engaged in a dispute with his two sisters over the will of their late father, Filip Rotheimer.
Silverstein represented Phillip Rotheimer twice during 2015 and 2016 in litigation involving the will and a separate dispute over a building. The time frame coincided with the period she was exchanging Facebook messages with the state senator.
All told, Phillip Rotheimer paid Silverstein about $6,100 in legal fees for his representation, Denise Rotheimer said.
Silverstein declined to talk about his legal work for Rotheimer’s father, saying only that he wanted to answer Denise Rotheimer’s sexual harassment accusations directly to interim Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter.
Controversial legal work
Denise Rotheimer said she’d asked Silverstein for a referral after learning at her grandfather’s September 2015 funeral services that an aunt intended to draw her father into litigation by disputing how the family patriarch, through his will, intended to disburse what she described as a “multimillion-dollar” estate.
“I had e-mailed Silverstein when I came back home from the memorial, telling him my aunt had just threatened to sue ...He called me right away after I sent the email, and he said he could represent my dad,” Denise Rotheimer said.
She said her father made the decision to hire Silverstein.
“My father thought with him being a senator, a lawyer … people would be walking on eggshells around him because there was a higher standard he held being a senator,” she said.
Denise Rotheimer said on at least two occasions, Silverstein presided over meetings about the case with her and her father at the senator’s legislative office on Chicago’s North Side. She said she told Porter about the meetings in Silverstein’s state office during a lengthy interview last week about the sexual harassment accusations against him.
In his only comments to WBEZ, Silverstein denied meeting with the Rotheimers in his Senate district office. Instead, he said the meetings occurred in an adjoining conference room in the same building, but said the room is paid for by the 50th Ward Regular Democratic Organization that he controls.
A government watchdog group said hosting personal business on state property could pose a breach of ethics and a conflict of interest if a lawmaker also is doing legislative work on behalf of a client or client family member.
“It’s not appropriate to conduct personal business on state time or resources. So that’s the problem I see there,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “There really should be a bright line between personal work and service to the taxpayers.”
Brune said her organization wants to see state disclosure requirements for lawmakers toughened so there is more thorough information made public about their professional clients – a reporting standard that exists in other states.
Law license at risk?
During most of the time Silverstein was representing her father’s legal interests, Rotheimer said she kept her sexual harassment allegations private until shortly before Phillip Rotheimer severed ties with the senator in 2016, which she estimated to be in July or August.
Rotheimer said she tried to tell her father about the alleged harassment, recalling how Silverstein had called her “intimidating or intoxicating or something like that,” but he didn’t initially understand the severity of it.
“And I said, ‘Well dad, think about it this way. If a guy had told mom she was “intimidating” or “intoxicating” and “looked like a movie star,” how would that make you feel?’ Then his eyes widened up a bit, and he, you know, realized what I was saying so it became serious at that point,” she said.
Her father corroborated Rotheimer’s chronology. Phillip Rotheimer said his daughter’s revelations and the senator’s inability to resolve the probate case led him to fire Silverstein.
“That’s why we got rid of him,” he said.
Rotheimer’s allegations could carry both political and legal consequences for Silverstein.
On Monday, Silverstein filed his nominating petitions for re-election in the 8th Senate District, which covers parts of Chicago’s North Side and pieces of north suburban Lincolnwood, Niles, and Morton Grove. Also filing Monday was former SEIU Healthcare legislative coordinator Ram Villivalam, representing a rare primary challenge to Silverstein.
In November, the lawmaker resigned his leadership post in the Senate Democratic caucus just one day after Rotheimer went public with her accusations during a legislative hearing.
What’s more, if Rotheimer’s sexual harassment claims are validated by Porter, the law license Silverstein has held since 1985 could be at risk, said the former 15-year head of the state Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which licenses Illinois attorneys and recommends sanctions against lawyers who engage in misconduct.
As a lawyer, Silverstein has never been sanctioned by the state.
“If he were found to have engaged in conduct that amounted to sexual harassment of her in the context of representing her father — and there were a finding by some administrative body that the harassment had occurred — he would be vulnerable in terms of his law license,” said lawyer Mary Robinson, the ARDC’s former administrator who is now in private practice.
However, after reviewing portions of the emails Rotheimer released, Robinson said she is not entirely certain that what she read at WBEZ’s request constitutes a clear-cut punishable offense by her former agency.
“I don’t see a sense of him using authority to keep her engaged. It appears as much as you can tell from just reading black and white … to be a very collaborative engagement. No one seems to be pulling the other one way or another,” Robinson said.
“I didn’t read them all, but I didn’t see any instance in which I would have read any of his messages as suggesting she would be more likely to get what she wanted either on behalf of her father or on behalf of her base … by keeping him happy,” she said. “I did not see an indication he was trying to use power in order to get something she would have been otherwise unwilling to engage in.”
In the pages and pages of private Facebook messages Rotheimer released to bolster her sexual harassment claims against Silverstein, she and the senator mix work and personal musings, with Silverstein at one point telling her, “I will check to see if you are a true blonde.”
After the October hearing where she first went public with her accusation, Rotheimer told reporters she didn't confront Silverstein about the harassment because she was afraid he'd kill her bill.
"I was in a situation where I was just very vulnerable and unable to say something like that because the consequence of saying that would have been more of a detriment to me," Rotheimer said then.
Porter declined to comment on Rotheimer’s allegations against Silverstein – one of 27 ethics complaints against lawmakers or their staffs that she was authorized last month to investigate by the General Assembly.
She would not divulge a timeline by which her investigations will be complete, saying only that she intends to “address all the complaints before me as swiftly as possible.”
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @davemckinney.