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Sexual Harassment In State Capitols: Illinois

TONY ARNOLD, BYLINE: And I'm Tony Arnold in Illinois, where a recent open letter by hundreds of women in politics detail the culture of pervasive sexual harassment at the Illinois State Capitol. In response, leaders quickly introduced a bill to require lawmakers, staff and lobbyists to undergo sexual harassment training. No names were named in the mass letter. Its authors say the point is to address the culture that allowed the harassment. But at a hearing on the new legislation earlier this week, one lawmaker was accused by name. State Senator Ira Silverstein had sponsored a victims' rights bill that Denise Rotheimer was advocating. She says he threatened to withdraw the bill when he thought she had a boyfriend.

DENISE ROTHEIMER: He used it as a means, like a carrot, where he had power over me.

ARNOLD: Rotheimer says Silverstein, a Democrat from Chicago, then revived the bill when he found out she was single. She says he'd call her late at night.

ROTHEIMER: I lost 20 pounds. My hair fell out. I was so scared that I would have to admit myself into a hospital because I went down to, like, 109 pounds. I had, like, no control in the situation.

ARNOLD: Since she went public, Silverstein has stepped down from a leadership position, but he's staying in the state Senate. Silverstein disputes Rotheimer's charges. He said, quote, "I apologize if I made her uncomfortable, but I await the commission's findings."

Rotheimer's case shows just how unprepared the Illinois State House is for dealing with allegations of sexual harassment. Her complaint bounced around the Capitol before an ethics commission would take it up. A watchdog position that investigates wrongdoing by lawmakers has been vacant for more than two years. It's been nearly a year, and there's been no action on Rotheimer's case. House Speaker Michael Madigan said he hopes lawmakers get the message.


MICHAEL MADIGAN: Better knock it off because you're going to get in big trouble.

ARNOLD: Madigan, who's been in office since 1971, said he'd heard rumors, but he didn't realize sexual harassment at the Capitol is as pervasive as women say it is.

For NPR News, I'm Tony Arnold in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tony Arnold