Jim Dey: Poor judgment or sexual misconduct?

Jim Dey: Poor judgment or sexual misconduct?

Events in Illinois and Michigan last week imparted two different — but equally important — messages in connection with the sexual-misconduct contagion that has swept the nation over the past six months.

The case of former Michigan State University Dr. Larry Nassar demonstrates the huge importance of taking seriously allegations of sexual abuse. Various MSU officials for years ignored reports about Dr. Nassar's criminal actions. Now, there's hell to pay for not following up on multiple, but isolated, complaints that the sports doctor sexually assaulted more than 100 women over more than two decades under the pretext of providing them medical treatment.

But at the same time authorities are being encouraged to always "believe" the victim, the case of an Illinois legislator accused of sexually harassing a constituent demonstrates the importance of letting the facts speak for themselves and not rushing to judgment.

Back in October, at the height of the media frenzy, a suburban Chicago woman, Denise Rotheimer, drew widespread publicity when, during a legislative hearing on the issue, she publicly accused state Sen. Ira Silverstein of sexually harassing her while purporting to help pass legislation Rotheimer favored.

Silverstein, who was immediately stripped of a leadership post in the Senate, became persona non grata to his fellow Democrats. He faces multiple challengers in the upcoming March 20 Democratic Party primary. He's even fighting for a ballot spot after his petitions were challenged as insufficient.

Silverstein, who is married, is damaged goods, a shell of his former self.

Last week, Chicago lawyer Julie Porter, the state's new legislative inspector general, issued a lengthy report that concluded Silverstein and Rotheimer "regarded each other as friends, sought each other's approval and continued attention and developed a more-than-professional relationship."

Details of the report make it clear, despite Silverstein's denials, that he developed a romantic interest in Rotheimer as he worked with her to pass a bill that was widely opposed. It's equally clear that Rotheimer, whatever she was thinking, encouraged and participated in friendly Facebook conversations with Silverstein.

Rotheimer complained that Silverstein showered her with personal compliments, telling her that "you look like a movie star" and "you have pretty eyes." But at the same time, she was equally effusive in her responses, telling Silverstein that "you're cute," and "you're funny" and "you always make me smile."

"Not only did Silverstein and Rotheimer frequently message each other about personal topics, they did so at all hours of the day and night, particularly as time went on. It was not uncommon for Silverstein and Rotheimer to send each other messages late into the night, even into the next morning," Porter wrote.

Porter described the messages as "flirtatious" but not "sexually explicit" and said "there was never any express discussion about cultivating a romantic relationship."

Silverstein did let his guard down in one particular message that has drawn significant media attention. Although he denied it, the sexual double entendre was obvious when he told Rotheimer that he planned to "check to see if u r a true blond."

That's an infamous sexual reference straight out of the 1950s best-selling Mickey Spillane detective novel "I, the Jury."

Silverstein disingenuously explained that the reference was part of a continuing repartee with Rotheimer about their graying hair.

Although Porter concluded that Silverstein did not sexual harass Rotheimer and genuinely tried, but failed, to pass her bill over strong opposition, she said he has an "overly generous view of his own conduct."

She characterized Silverstein's conduct as "unprofessional" and recommended he receive counseling about the personal bounds within which a legislator should operate.

Although it's hard to imagine conduct so loathsome as to be beneath the dignity of an Illinois legislator, Porter concluded Silverstein was guilty of "conduct unbecoming of a legislator."

Reaction to the decision was swift, harsh and political.

Rotheimer denounced the report's finding as a sham, the result of a process that is "rigged" to excuse the guilty. Maintaining a low profile, the embarrassed Silverstein issued a one-paragraph statement saying that he is "grateful to have an inspector general who saw the facts for what they were."

As for the report, it's a detailed and exhaustive examination of the relationship that developed between a highly suspicious woman emotionally involved in a piece of legislation that Sen. Silverstein volunteered to help her pass. His failure to do so, obviously, persuaded her that he was posing as a helper who was more interested in seduction than legislation.

In the end, it's hard to escape the conclusion that, for a variety of reasons, both Rotheimer and Silverstein tried to shade undisputed facts to their individual benefit.

Porter's report demonstrates once again that facts do matter, that there is a limit as to how ideology and grievance can push a complaint.

Nonetheless, it ain't over till it's over. The complaint against Silverstein remains a potent weapon his opponents are using against him in the primary.

"Women need to be believed. And men need to be held accountable," one of Silverstein's opponents told The Chicago Tribune.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com.

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