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IG: Cook County needs revamp on sexual harassment outside of work following allegations against Preckwinkle ex-chief of staff

Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick and Ray Long

A Cook County watchdog’s investigation concluded Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against her former chief of staff was “reasonable,” but said the county needs to come up with a better way to consider complaints of improper behavior by employees when they’re off the clock. In a summary released Monday, Inspector General Patrick Blanchard noted that the woman who accused then-Preckwinkle chief of staff John Keller of inappropriately touching her in 2016 initially was unwilling to come forward. When the woman decided to do so months later as Preckwinkle geared up to run for mayor, Preckwinkle looked into the woman’s account and took action, Blanchard added.

The woman’s “hesitancy to come forward was reasonable,” Blanchard wrote. “The president’s assertion that she would not take action against an employee based on unsubstantiated rumor is also reasonable.” Blanchard went on to note a lack of clarity about how to handle allegations relating to county employees’ behavior outside work that could “bring disrepute on the county.” He recommended the process for such cases “be clarified so to eliminate any confusion surrounding whether a report can be filed under these circumstances and how to do so.”

A Preckwinkle spokeswoman said the office recently received the recommendations and have “taken them under advisement.” Stephanie Henson also said the county is putting in place recommendations from an anti-harassment panel Preckwinkle formed in the wake of the Keller firing.

The allegations against Keller involved a November 2016 post–election trip in a crowded cab, with the accuser saying Keller grabbed her leg and crotch, an account that Preckwinkle later said was corroborated by two witnesses. Keller denied the allegations on Monday, as he has previously.

The Keller issue dogged Preckwinkle as she prepared to run for mayor last fall. Before launching her campaign, the County Board president announced she had fired Keller for “inappropriate behavior.” Then on the day she formally announced her candidacy, Preckwinkle was asked twice if she knew about any harassment allegations involving her top aide before mid-September. Each time she responded by saying, “No.” She portrayed her disciplinary action as swift and decisive. Preckwinkle, however, knew of concerns about Keller six months earlier, the Tribune reported in November. Blanchard did not address Preckwinkle’s pre-campaign denial and subsequent reversal. During the campaign, now-Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused Preckwinkle of misleading the public.

Rather than explore that question, Blanchard’s investigation was conducted to determine if county officials and employees acted appropriately once they learned of the allegations against Keller. The probe also looked at whether Keller “exerted undue influence over the county" ethics and human rights department that considers allegations of inappropriate conduct, the inspector general wrote. The genesis of the second part of the investigation was spurred by Democratic consultant Emily Miller, who initially brought the accuser’s allegations to a top aide for Preckwinkle in March 2018. In September, Miller wrote to Preckwinkle saying that Keller had discussed the possibility of her taking a job heading up the county human rights and ethics department. Miller said Keller told her he expected the person who had the job to let him know about work by the office that could put the County Board president’s office in the news. That, she wrote, “led to my realization that John Keller was able to use the structure of county government to shield himself from investigations.” Blanchard reached a different conclusion. The investigation “revealed no evidence that the former chief of staff exerted an undue amount of control over the Department of Ethics and Human Rights. It is not unreasonable that the former chief of staff wanted to be given a heads up about cases that may become public and would affect to the Office of the President," he wrote. The inspector general also said his evidence “revealed no incidents or allegations involving” Keller “sexually harassing or otherwise treating Cook County employees in an inappropriate manner.”

Keller reviewed the inspector general’s conclusions. “It comes back exactly the truth," he said. "Nothing ever happened at work. There’s no way I unduly influenced the ethics department.” Blanchard’s report also concluded there was no evidence that there was “a culture of sexual harassment or discrimination" — or one that condones those improper behaviors — in Preckwinkle’s office. Miller took issue with that finding, saying in a statement that “it would be nice if that were true.” She said her “personal experience and the experiences shared with me by other women who I believe” led her to conclude otherwise. “Unfortunately, women will continue to miss out on opportunities for professional advancement because of the culture of sexual harassment," said Miller, who is now a senior policy adviser to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. In a statement, Preckwinkle said she agreed with the watchdog’s findings. “My office has long been a champion for diversity and inclusion,” the statement quoted Preckwinkle as saying. “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.” The woman who came forward with her allegation told the Tribune that Keller “used his hands to grab my legs and crotch” when they were in a crowded cab the night Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump. The Tribune is not naming the woman because of the nature of the incident.

On Monday, Keller’s accuser endorsed the inspector general’s recommendations and called for the county to take swift and immediate action to remedy reporting avenues for victims and personnel policies that hold people in power accountable. Without the changes, she said, “people who have had experiences like mine are only going to be validated to not come forward.” The IG report underscored that there was no clear “pathway to report my experience. And even if someone like me could find that pathway, it’s unclear that action would be taken,” she said.


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