Just days before voters decide whether they want Chicago Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno to keep his seat in Chicago’s City Council, he’s facing a potentially damaging sexual harassment complaint from a former aide.
Belia Portillo, who handled social-media accounts for Moreno in 2014 and 2015, says he made highly inappropriate comments to staff who gathered at a bar after the gay pride parade on the North Side.
Now 27 and years removed from her time in government and politics, Portillo told WBEZ that Moreno said to her and other aides at the 2015 gathering, “OK, we’re gonna have a contest. Everyone’s gonna have to take off their shirts. The girls can keep their bras on. And if your body is better than mine, then you get a raise.”
Moreno did not respond to messages seeking comment. But a campaign spokesman for the alderman, David Ormsby, said Moreno categorically denies Portillo’s accusation.
“There’s nothing remotely true about the way that’s been described,” Ormsby said Tuesday. “Nothing remotely like that transpired.”
Portillo says everybody’s shirts stayed on during the post-parade staff gathering at El Jardin, a Mexican restaurant and bar in the Lakeview neighborhood, despite the alderman’s crass request.
But she says Moreno persisted on the topic of his underlings’ physical attributes.
“He’s just kind of pointing around the table and saying, ‘You’re OK, your body’s fine,’” says Portillo, a daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up in the northwest suburbs.
“He said I’m OK. You know, I didn’t ask for that, so that was difficult to respond to. I think anyone who was there would agree it was an uncomfortable situation.”
Another person who was there that day backed up echoed Portillo’s account. But that person asked to remain anonymous, to avoid political blowback from Moreno.
Ormsby, the Moreno campaign spokesman, says Portillo did not mention it when she wrote a resignation letter as she left her job in the alderman’s office in September. 2015.
But Portillo says she was too scared to say anything that could hurt her career prospects because her job with Moreno was her first full-time work experience and she needed the reference.
Portillo studied political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and says she offered to work at her alderman’s office on the advice of her professor, former independent Ald. Dick Simpson.
She says she was elated to get hired as a full-time aide after an internship in Moreno’s office.
But she described virtual sweatshop conditions: Answering messages from the alderman at all hours for a meagre $25,000 annual salary.
“He espouses that everybody should have health care but I had no health care, no benefits,” Portillo says.
She also alleges that Moreno and his top aides made her do political work while she was at her taxpayer-funded, government job — under the pretext that she momentarily “clocked out” from her day job to do political tasks.
Portillo says she supports Moreno’s re-election challenger, Daniel La Spata. But she denies that her decision to come out with the allegations now, shortly before the election, is politically motivated. La Spata has had his own controversy, and recently apologized for appearing in a racist photo.
Still, Portillo says she’ll support whoever is running against Moreno.
“I think that this alderman has acted irresponsibly in this ward, has neglected his staff and shouldn’t be allowed to serve another four years in the City Council,” she said.
Portillo now works in marketing, in the information-technology field, and she has no interest in going back to politics.
“I felt very unsafe,” she says of her stint with Moreno. “That is something that has lingered with me and prevented me from returning to politics for a very long time.”
Nobody should criticize her, she says, for keeping quiet about her disturbing experience in politics at the time of the alleged incident with Moreno.
“I was living paycheck to paycheck,” Portillo says. “I depended on this man for a job. It’s very difficult. It makes you feel very vulnerable to the power that these people wield.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @dmihalopoulos.