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Preckwinkle sends out harassment survey to staff after harassment controversy in her office

Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office circulated a “Culture of Reporting Harassment” survey among staff less than two weeks after a Chicago Tribune story raised questions about her handling of harassment allegations involving a top aide.

A spokeswoman for Preckwinkle said the survey sent out Monday is “a follow up to the mandated sexual harassment training that all employees are required to take.”

As she enters a crowded race for Chicago mayor, opponents have criticized Preckwinkle for how she handled the initial allegations of sexual misconduct against former Chief of Staff John Keller, who she fired just two days before announcing her candidacy.

Preckwinkle spokeswoman Becky Schlikerman said the survey was sent to offices under the president’s authority, something many workplaces are doing in the age of #MeToo.

“Organizations across all sectors are dealing with the very questions we are regarding harassment. President Preckwinkle wants Cook County to be a leader,” Schlikerman wrote in an email.

An email that went out with the survey states that it “aims to identify the culture of reporting harassment within the Offices Under the President of the Cook County Board. Participating in this survey will help President Preckwinkle, the President’s Office and the Bureau of Human Resources ensure Cook County is a respectful and safe workplace for all employees.”

Preckwinkle announced on Sept. 19 she had fired Keller for “inappropriate behavior.” A day later — as she fielded questions from reporters after announcing her candidacy for mayor — she twice said “no” when asked by reporters if she knew about any harassment allegations involving her top aide before mid-September.

Scott Cisek, a key political adviser, said he told Preckwinkle days after the March 20 primary election that he'd "heard some very disturbing rumors" that Keller "had been behaving badly towards women." And he warned Preckwinkle that someday "one of these women is going to come forward."

A political consultant, Emily Miller, told the Tribune she brought the Keller allegations to Cisek back in March and followed up with Preckwinkle last month to tell her she was concerned about the way the matter was handled.

When the Tribune asked her about Keller weeks after his firing, Preckwinkle said that at the time she believed Keller's denial and thought that his offer to resign was "a way of protecting me." Asked why she denied at the news conference that she knew about the Keller allegations earlier, Preckwinkle said she "struggled with what to put out there."

"Because there was nothing that I had any evidence for. And I'm not just going to go out there with things that I have no evidence, no substantiation, no corroboration for," she said.

She stressed that she asked Cisek to try to get a victim or a witness to make a formal complaint in March, but no one came forward.

One of the allegations that led to Keller's ouster happened Nov. 8, 2016, the night Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party, was unexpectedly defeated by Donald Trump.

Keller, just weeks away from being promoted to Preckwinkle’s chief of staff at the time, exited a River North bar full of pro-Clinton operatives and piled into a cab with a group of at least five people to head to a nearby tavern. A woman sitting in the crowded back seat said Keller touched her inappropriately.

Keller told the Tribune that he never intentionally touched the woman inappropriately.

“I apologize if I made her uncomfortable, but I never heard about this until it was brought to Toni,” Keller said. “I am, at the end of the day, very sorry about this. This is not who I am, day in and day out.”

Preckwinkle has referred the Keller matter to the Cook County inspector general for a full investigation. She did so after Miller documented in an email to Preckwinkle’s chief of staff last month her concerns about the way the allegations were handled.

Lisa Donovan is the host of The Spin, the Tribune’s politics e-newsletter. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox weekday afternoons.


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