Political and personal issues mount for a once-rising star of Illinois politics

The state spent nearly $150,000 in a civil discrimination case involving Democratic state Sen. Michael Hastings, whose wife accused him of domestic violence.

State Sen. Michael Hastings
State Sen. Michael Hastings speaks during a press conference on July 29, 2021. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo
State Sen. Michael Hastings
State Sen. Michael Hastings speaks during a press conference on July 29, 2021. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

Political and personal issues mount for a once-rising star of Illinois politics

The state spent nearly $150,000 in a civil discrimination case involving Democratic state Sen. Michael Hastings, whose wife accused him of domestic violence.

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For more than two years, lawyers for the state of Illinois fought against a lawsuit filed by the former chief of staff to powerful Sen. Michael Hastings.

But earlier this year, the state paid $100,000 to the ex-chief of staff to Hastings and her lawyer to settle the case, which included accusations of racial and gender discrimination against the Democratic lawmaker.

And those were not the only costs to taxpayers from that legal battle. The state also hired a private attorney who represented Hastings — with the payments to the outside counsel’s firm adding up to nearly $47,000, according to records obtained by WBEZ.

While the civil case is settled, Hastings now faces new and serious personal accusations from his estranged wife, which recently came into public view and have threatened to derail his once-promising political career.

Boasting an education at West Point and military service in Iraq, Hastings had been viewed by many as a rising star in Springfield, and he launched what he hoped would be a run for a statewide office this year.

Instead, he’s fighting a Republican challenger in the November election for his seat representing a district in the south suburbs, where Hastings’s family is powerful and voters made him one of the youngest state senators in Illinois history.

Hastings gave up a role in the Senate Democrats’ leadership team last month, soon after the accusation of domestic abuse from his estranged wife surfaced online.

Suburban police records obtained by WBEZ show Hastings’s wife told officers last year that in 2020, he put her in a headlock and slammed her into a door repeatedly. Hastings has denied these allegations.

The lawmaker filed for divorce from Kathleen Hastings last year, but officials in Will County have taken the unusual step of sealing the entire proceeding in domestic court from public view.

Police reports from the south suburbs suggest the divorce has become increasingly bitter. Records show Hastings called two different police departments and unsuccessfully sought to have his wife arrested and charged two months ago in a dispute over visitation rights.

In addition to denying his wife’s allegations of domestic-battery, he also sued south suburban Frankfort for allegedly leaking the report containing those allegations.

Still, a veteran environmental lobbyist in Springfield told WBEZ that Kathleen Hastings’s complaint to police — and what she says are her own personal experiences of being bullied repeatedly by Michael Hastings in professional interactions — have led her to decide she would no longer lobby him and to call for his resignation from the Senate.

Jen Walling, the longtime executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said in an interview last week that Hastings had yelled at her, pounded his hands on a table in a Capitol meeting room and approached her in a menacing manner during disagreements over legislation in Springfield in the past five years.

“He clearly, to me, in observing him, has had serious issues with anger management that aren’t appropriate for the workplace where we are making laws for the state of Illinois,” Walling said.

Hastings declined to be interviewed for this story, citing his multiple, ongoing legal battles.

But in a written statement sent to WBEZ, Hastings spokesman Ray Hanania said Walling was “not being honest,” and Hanania suggested her accusations and other complaints against Hastings recently — including those stemming from the senator’s marital problems — were designed to hurt his reelection bid.

“She did not want it all over the media”

Divorce files and other court records typically are open to the public. Nothing comes up, however, if you search the computer at the Will County court clerk’s office in Joliet by the names of the parties or the case number for the Hastings divorce.

An employee in the clerk’s file room told a reporter the case had been “impounded” and referred questions to the county’s chief judge. A court administrator did not explain when or why the Hastings’ divorce files were sealed, saying a written motion for that information would have to be filed with the judge overseeing the family division of the county’s circuit court.

Hanania said Michael Hastings requested that his divorce case be hidden from public view.

“A divorce is a personal matter and until it is resolved, it shouldn’t be released to be used in any unrelated manner, especially to influence politics or an election,” Hanania said. “Conducting a divorce in a public way would complicate ending a marriage amicably for anyone. Imagine if everyone in a divorce were subject to having their divorce splashed in a way to disparage either side.”

Records obtained by WBEZ show the couple got married in Las Vegas in 2014 and the senator filed for divorce on June 21, 2021, asking the court to make him “the parent with the majority of parenting time” and arguing his wife “should be barred from an award of maintenance” because she was working part time and should get a full-time job.

Court and police records show Hastings filed for divorce the day after an officer in Frankfort responded to “domestic trouble” reported by the senator’s wife. In his report, the officer wrote that Kathleen Hastings “advised there was a verbal altercation with her husband, Senator Michael Hastings” at about 4:30 p.m. on June 20, 2021.

Kathleen Hastings told the officer the couple were estranged and in the process of negotiating the terms of their split. The report states that on that day, “Michael became verbally aggressive and irate when he discovered Kathleen was inside the home and demanded she leave.”

According to the police report, Michael Hastings “pulled out his cell phone and started to record her for unknown reasons and then silently mouthed” some misogynistic slurs to his wife.

The officer at the scene wrote that Kathleen Hastings told him she and her husband had hired attorneys and were working out a child-visitation timetable. At that point, though, “None of this has gone through the Will County Courthouse,” according to the police report.

“Kathleen advised she has been keeping it quiet due to Michael’s position and has not wanted anything to leak to the media,” the officer wrote.

“Done with the civil route”

While filing the report last year, Kathleen Hastings told police she had a violent clash with Michael Hastings eight months earlier, in November 2020.

“She also advised on 11-09-2020, Michael battered her, by placing her in a chokehold/neck restraint, and slammed her body into a door multiple times,” according to the report. “She advised it was the only time he was ever physical with her and she wanted to contact FPD for help, but feared for her safety. She also explained she did not want it all over the media, so she withheld from reporting the battery.”

But she told police that the previous eight months of her husband “being emotionally and verbally abusive” prompted her to decide “she is done with the civil route.” She said she filed the report that day “to start a paper trail with the Will County Courthouse.”

At the same time, police records show, Kathleen Hastings told police she did not want them to “speak with Michael or investigate the battery” that allegedly occurred the year before she called police to her home.

In his lawsuit filed against the Village of Frankfort on Aug. 18 in Will County Circuit Court, Michael Hastings alleged that his estranged wife’s allegations of emotional, verbal and physical abuse “are false statements of fact.”

The contents of the June 2021 police report were first reported this summer by Illinois Leaks, a blog about Illinois politicians.

And police records obtained by WBEZ from two other south suburban communities, Mokena and New Lenox, show that the Hastings recently involved police in their conflicts over custody of their children.

Police there said Kathleen Hastings provided them with proof the couple had agreed to a change in the agreed-upon routine. But an officer reported that Michael Hastings “was not in agreement with this compromise and wanted her cited/charged for visitation interference. He was very insistent that she be charged and that was declined by MPD, as she was cooperative and waiting in Frankfort for him to come get the kids.”

After the Mokena police rejected his “very adamant” demand, Michael Hastings called police in New Lenox and asked them to arrest Kathleen Hastings, records show. When New Lenox police also declined to arrest Kathleen Hastings, an officer reported that Michael Hastings told him his decision “was not acceptable and I wasn’t fulfilling my duties as a police officer.”

Kathleen Hastings could not be reached, and her lawyer did not return messages.

Senator’s long-running fight with former top aide

While the divorce proceeded in secrecy in Will County, Hastings’s long-running legal fight with a former aide reached its end in Cook County Circuit Court.

The aide, Cassandra Matz, sued the Illinois State Senate and Hastings in 2019. She accused him of retaliating after she complained he had “discriminated against her based on sex, race, disability, and political discrimination,” court records show. Matz is Black, and Hastings is white.

Matz accused Hastings of responding to her complaints by reporting her to the Illinois Legislative Inspector General for allegedly doing political work while on the clock for the state. The inspector general concluded Hastings had been justified in firing Matz but that the alleged violations “cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt” and would not be referred for criminal prosecution.

Much of Matz’s lawsuit was thrown out, court records show. But the case was settled in December. The state and Hastings continued to deny wrongdoing and entered into the deal with Matz “to avoid further expense,” according to a copy of the agreement.

The state cut checks to Matz for $45,000 and to her attorney for $55,000 in February, records show.

Matz did not respond to messages. Her lawyer, Heidi Sleper of Wheaton, declined to comment.

Under the agreement with the state, Matz was not allowed to disclose “particulars discussed in settlement negotiations … On inquiry, Plaintiff and their attorney shall simply state that these matters were settled to the satisfaction of the Parties.”

The attorney general had hired a private lawyer, Ryan Jacobson, to represent Hastings in the case, according to state records. Jacobson’s firm was paid a total of $46,657.77 at a rate of $200 an hour, officials said.

Jacobson said he worked on the case at a steeply discounted rate and some of the payments from the state to his firm went toward outside mediation, court costs and administrative fees associated with the case. He declined to comment on the case itself.

Hastings’s spokesman, Hanania, declined to comment when asked whether the senator had asked for Jacobson to be hired by the state and whether Hastings believed his work for Hastings represented a good use of taxpayer money.

“The attorney general of the state of Illinois has the sole authority to make that appointment and any question regarding this should be referred to him directly,” Hanania said.

Aides to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul did not answer questions about Hastings’s lawyer in the case, saying only that they adhered to a law allowing legislators to have an outside attorney in situations like this.

“They have input on the attorney chosen to represent them,” Raoul spokeswoman Annie Thompson said.

Thompson would not say why the state agreed to settle the case involving Hastings and his aide, but she said it was not uncommon to reach such a deal in a suit brought by an employee because a trial “can be unpredictable and ultimately cost taxpayers more money.”

Hastings’s fallout with an environmental lobbyist

Walling, the environmental lobbyist, said she knew it could be detrimental to the issues she champions in Springfield to complain publicly about Hastings, who is the chairman of the Senate’s Energy and Public Utilities Committee.

Walling said she is a Democrat and has largely agreed with Hastings on the issues. Her group has said his voting record in Springfield has matched their stances 100% of the time in recent years.

But after hearing about Kathleen Hastings’s accusation of domestic battery, Walling said she decided to speak out about her own negative experiences with the senator. Walling said her problems with Michael Hastings date back to at least 2017.

During negotiations over potential legislation, Walling said, Hastings “just would all of a sudden get angry and stand up and pound the table” on multiple occasions.

When she angered Hastings, she said, he retaliated through official actions.

“Bullying and threatening is just how he behaves in Springfield,” she said. “He threatened to kill all of my bills. He would refuse to let our folks testify in committee.”

Walling provided screenshots of text message exchanges with other lobbyists in 2019, after what she said was a confrontation in a private meeting with Hastings.

“Did you just hear Hastings yell at us?” she wrote to one lobbyist.

She texted another lobbyist also about “threatened” political retaliation, writing, “Omg Hastings just told me that ‘he’s a gentle bear until he’s poked.’ ”

Walling said the metaphor was apt.

“There are times, he’s extremely friendly and extremely gentle, charismatic, nice to work with,” she told WBEZ. “But I also have repeatedly and quickly seen episodes of angry yelling that left me nervous to work with him and I don’t think were appropriate for work in the Capitol.”

She said Hastings should resign from office or at least be removed as committee chairman.

“He is not somebody that I will consider going in to lobby anymore or sending any of my staff in to lobby, even if it’s something that is going to hurt the cause that we’re working on,” Walling said.

Hastings’s spokesman, Hanania, said Walling “is the bully. And she is not being honest. Hastings has been the sponsor of the most sweeping environmental legislation we have seen.”

Hanania also said Walling’s group had given Hastings an award, and he provided text messages showing friendly exchanges between the senator and the lobbyist, including some from earlier this year. Those texts included Walling thanking Hastings for the passage of a bill last year: “Great job!”

“It’s all political because of the Nov. 8, 2022 elections,” Hanania said of the new criticism. “If Senator Hastings is as bad as Wallings (sic) claims, why would she compliment him, and praise him so strongly in those texts?”

Walling said those complimentary texts were sent when she felt her group had to continue to work with Hastings because he has power over important issues, but that she no longer feels comfortable working with him.

The senator’s response on social media

Hastings, 41, is the son of Orland Hills Mayor Kyle Hastings. He was student government president and an All-State football player at Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, according to his Senate biography.

He played as an offensive lineman in college and graduated with a degree in leadership and management studies from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2003.

Hastings later served as aide-de-camp to a commanding general in Iraq and graduated with a degree from John Marshall Law School, records show.

He was first elected to the Senate 10 years ago and announced a campaign to succeed Secretary of State Jesse White in this year’s election, only to quit that race before the primary in June.

His Republican challenger in the 19th Illinois Senate District race in November is Patrick Sheehan, who works for the police in Plainfield and sits on the parks board in Lockport Township.

In resigning as the state Senate’s majority whip last month, Hastings wrote he was quitting that post at the request of Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and “due to the unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances pertaining to my family.”

And in a social media post apparently prompted by his personal and political troubles, Hastings suggested those problems would strengthen him, comparing himself to a “bloodied” boxer.

“So yeah, things might not be great right now,” he wrote last month on Facebook. “Obviously it’d be nice if they were better. But if they were, you’d also be weaker for it. Less informed. Less in touch with yourself and the fight you’re in.

“So squint and see that.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.