County Watchdog Clears Preckwinkle In Handling Of Former Aide’s Alleged Bad Behavior

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks at Chicago's City Hall on July 25, 2018. Bill Healy / WBEZ
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks at Chicago's City Hall on July 25, 2018. Bill Healy / WBEZ

County Watchdog Clears Preckwinkle In Handling Of Former Aide’s Alleged Bad Behavior

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle took a lot of heat last year about what — and when — she knew of sexual misconduct allegations against her chief of staff John Keller.

She ended up firing Keller shortly before she announced a bid for Chicago mayor, then lost the election in a stunning defeat.

Now, the results of an investigation into how the county handled those allegations appear to clear Preckwinkle’s name. The report released today by County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard said evidence “fails to support the conclusion that the President knew or should have known about the former Chief of Staff’s alleged behavior towards women outside of Cook County employment prior to being made aware of it in 2018.”

In a statement, Preckwinkle said she agreed with Blanchard’s findings.

“My office has long been a champion for diversity and inclusion,” Preckwinkle said in the statement. “The findings note that not only were actions taken to a former employee who was accused of inappropriate conduct while off-duty, but a thorough investigation of this employee’s interaction with county staff was also conducted.”

In an interview, Keller said he felt vindicated in a way.

“I’m glad that [Blanchard] found out the truth,” Keller said. “I acted appropriately at work. In any work environment where there’s lots of people, there were lots of rumors and those all came out to not be true.”

The inspector general launched an investigation last fall regarding allegations that Keller sexually harassed women outside of work during his tenure working for Preckwinkle. The county watchdog also looked into whether Keller “exerted undue influence” over the county’s Department of Human Rights and Ethics in order to direct the department’s investigations.

Keller became Preckwinkle’s chief of staff in 2017 after working his way up through county government on and off since at least 2010. As chief of staff, he supervised all offices under Preckwinkle.

The scope of Blanchard’s inquiry was whether Cook County officials and employees acted appropriately once they learned of allegations against Keller.

A Chicago Tribune investigation alleged that Preckwinkle knew about concerns regarding Keller’s behavior in March 2018 but failed to act until about six months later — in September 2018. That’s when she fired him.

Preckwinkle repeatedly told media that she had no prior knowledge of allegations against Keller.

“I have no tolerance for this,” Preckwinkle said the night she announced her candidacy for Chicago mayor two days after firing Keller.

She eventually did acknowledge that she heard an earlier unsubstantiated rumor against Keller, but she said she could not confirm it.

Blanchard’s report said it was “reasonable” for Preckwinkle not to take action against an employee based on unsubstantiated rumor. There’s no indication she knew of “specific allegations” against Keller until September 2018, the report said.

Blanchard did not find evidence that Keller sexually harassed or otherwise treated county employees inappropriately. Blanchard’s office and county human resource and ethics leaders received no complaints about Keller. And none of the employees Blanchard’s office interviewed for the investigation were aware of complaints.

“The evidence developed over the course of this investigation did not reveal the existence of a culture of sexual harassment or discrimination or one that condones such conduct in the Office of the President,” the report said.

In fact, Preckwinkle doesn’t encourage employees to discuss their personal lives at work, the report said.

Blanchard also found no evidence that Keller attempted to influence how cases with the county’s Department of Human Rights and Ethics were handled.

Blanchard’s report does highlight a loophole: Cook County government, which has roughly 22,000 employees and is one of the biggest counties in the nation, does not have a policy for how to discipline workers for behaving inappropriately outside of work. Blanchard recommends the county create one.

“Cook County has an interest in their employees beyond 9 to 5,” Blanchard said in an interview.

He pointed to similar policies for the county-run health system and city of Chicago workers.

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.