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Cook County commissioner retaliated against staff member who reported sexual harassment by her supervisor: watchdog office
Monday, July 19, 2021 Chicago Tribune by Alice Yin Gregory Pratt
A Cook County elected official retaliated against an employee after she complained that her supervisor sent her unwanted, sexually explicit texts and groped her, according to the findings of an inspector general’s investigation.
The high-ranking staff member who was the subject of the complaint violated the county’s policy prohibiting sexual harassment, the investigation concluded, and received a “verbal admonishment” and anti-harassment training, the report states.
The report issued Thursday by the Office of the Independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard doesn’t name the elected official, but sources identified her as longtime County Board Commissioner Deborah Sims, a Posen Democrat. The unnamed high-ranking staff member was also found to have retaliated against the employee who who made the complaint, according to the report.
Reached by the Tribune, Sims released a statement Friday via spokesman Sean Howard saying she accepted the investigation’s findings.
“This office does not condone any form of sexual-harassment or retaliation,” Sims wrote. “I accept the findings and recommendations of the inspector general and we have complied with his recommendations. My office will continue participating in annual training pertaining to harassment and discrimination in the workplace.”
However, the inspector general’s report states that the elected official “disagreed with the OIIG finding of retaliation and rejected the OIIG recommendation for discipline of the (supervisor) on that charge.”
The inspector general’s office investigated “substantial text message evidence,” and the report states that the supervisor acknowledged sending the “sexually explicit” messages and that the woman also reported that the supervisor “‘tap[ped] her butt.’”
The report does not detail what the text messages say but summarizes them as creating “a pervasively harassing work environment caused by the complainant’s supervisor.”
The supervisor “suggested that his behavior, while inappropriate, should be considered in the context” of what he said was a long personal relationship with the employee that began before either worked in Cook County government.
After the employee complained, the elected official held a meeting to address the matter, concluded the supervisor “‘crossed the line’ with his behavior and admonished him to limit the nature of his communications with the complainant to business only,” the report states.
The inspector general’s office determined that this “verbal admonition” was akin to disciplinary action and that, under double jeopardy rules, “no further disciplinary action of a different nature or scope can be imposed at this juncture.”
But the report stated that the high-ranking staff member’s “status as the complainant’s direct supervisor represents an aggravating factor that could support a recommendation for the imposition of a significant level of disciplinary action against (the supervisor).”
Blanchard’s office determined the employee who reported sexual harassment lost work assignments, and a former staffer backed that up in interviews, stating the elected official stopped giving her information on events she used to attend as a representative of the office, the report states. Other evidence found that following the harassment report, the employee’s daily activities were closely monitored and her work responsibilities changed.
The inspector general concluded there was an “abrupt change” in the employee’s job duties “in relation to her sexual harassment complaint to the elected official.”
“The preponderance of the evidence developed also supports the conclusion” that the supervisor and the elected official violated the county policy against retaliation, the report states.
The inspector general’s office recommended the supervisor be disciplined for the retaliation and that both he and the elected official “receive training and instruction” on workplace policies. Sims disagreed with the findings of retaliation and “rejected the OIIG recommendation” to discipline him for that but agreed they would both go through additional training, according to the report.
Alice Yin is a reporter for the Tribune‘s metro desk, responsible for covering the ins and outs of Cook County government and the Obama Presidential Center. She is a Medill School of Journalism graduate and was a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Michigan before moving back to Chicago for a stint at the Sun-Times.
Raised in Little Village, Gregory Pratt covers Mayor Lori Lightfoot and City Hall. Before joining the Tribune in 2013, he worked for the BGA, alt-weeklies in Phoenix and Minneapolis, and Hoy. He has been a finalist for the Livingston and earned other national honors, including from the National Headliner Awards, the Lisagors, and Scripps Howard.