A top deputy of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan abruptly resigned from key leadership posts Thursday after a former medical marijuana advocate accused him of retaliation, verbal abuse and “inappropriate behavior.”
Advocate Maryann Loncar was still describing her allegations to reporters at the Capitol when Democratic Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie announced he was stepping down as deputy majority leader and relinquishing his spot on a committee that investigates complaints lodged against lawmakers and staff.
The harassment allegations came less than a day after Lang made a speech on the House floor as he won approval of the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which seeks to guarantee that rights can’t be denied because of a person’s sex. Flanked by female colleagues, Lang held his own news conference Thursday and dismissed the allegations as “absurd” while also acknowledging he had requested that the legislature’s watchdog investigate them.
“I just don’t want my situation to be in anybody’s way. I have a responsibility. After 31 years in the Democratic caucus, it means something to me. And I’m not going to let these people down,” Lang said.
The accusations arrived on the final day of a tumultuous spring session in which Madigan’s leadership repeatedly came under fire as women detailed what they said was a culture of gender discrimination and harassment in the veteran speaker’s political and government organizations. The latest allegations came as lawmakers scrambled to put in place new rules to give the inspector general more independence to launch probes against lawmakers, though supporters said it was just an initial step and more needs to be done to change how legislators police themselves.
A nervous and uneasy Loncar stepped to a microphone and accused Lang of years of harassment after they initially met while she was pushing legislation to legalize medical marijuana, a proposal Lang sponsored and former Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law in 2013.
Loncar said that during negotiations surrounding that bill, she was exiting a meeting with Lang when he put his hand on her lower back and asked if her husband “knew how lucky he is to have a wife like you.” Asked if she considered that sexual harassment, Loncar said, “I do.”
Around that same time, she said she received a few phone calls from Lang when she was away from the Capitol. In one case, Loncar said Lang called her “on a Sunday, screaming at me, swearing at me.”
Another call, she said, came when she was out at a dinner with family. Lang commented that he would have joined her if she “weren’t with her husband,” Loncar said. Asked if she considered that sexual harassment, she said: “Yes.”
Loncar said she did not report the behavior, noting Lang’s influence in Springfield.
“Where was I going to go? Was I going to go to the speaker, who sits right next to Lou Lang?” she said. “Was I going to go to the ethics committee, with him sitting on it? Was I? Do any of you know what that feels like? To be humiliated? To not have anywhere to go?”
Loncar said she believes that Lang later attempted to prevent her from getting involved in efforts to pass a measure to allow farmers to grow hemp, which cleared the legislature this week. The advocate said Lang told a senator sponsoring the bill not to work with her.
Sen. Toi Hutchinson told the Chicago Tribune she did get word Lang did not want Loncar involved in talks surrounding the bill. Hutchinson said she called Lang to tell him that she would not keep people from weighing in.
“He said, ‘I know you can’t keep people out of the building, but those people are crazy and I don’t want to see that they are involved in any way,’ ” said Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields.
Asked about Loncar’s allegations that Lang was bullying her, Hutchinson said, “I can see why she would feel that way.” Hutchinson said she had no knowledge of Loncar’s sexual harassment allegations.
The senator added that Loncar was not among the primary proponents of the bill. Other advocates, including Rebecca Osland with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, said the hemp bill did not advance sooner because negotiations were ongoing with other stakeholders. “It had nothing to do with (Lang),” Osland said.
More recently, Loncar said that in May 2017, Lang called her now-former husband and said he “can help you bury her if you want.” Loncar said she considered that comment a threat.
Loncar’s ex-husband adamantly denied that Lang made a threat against her.
“It never happened,” said Eddie Slowikowski, who was divorced from Loncar in 2012. “He never called me. What she said had never taken place.”
Slowikowski said he met Lang at a birthday party for a friend in 2016, and they discussed politics, but only in a general way.
Loncar said she spoke out on the final day of the spring session to spotlight a Capitol culture that “every single woman that’s down here goes through.”
“I’m somebody’s mother. I’m somebody’s sister. I’m somebody’s daughter. And these women are somebody’s daughters. They’re coming through here then, having been silenced by the power, by the untouchables,” Loncar said. “And it’s all of our responsibility to make sure that we touch the untouchables.”
The 68-year-old Lang, who has served in the House since 1987 and is known for his blistering attacks against political opponents, dismissed Loncar’s allegations and said he would seek re-election in November.
“From beginning to end, the allegations are absurd,” said Lang, who was joined by several female lawmakers who hailed him as a mentor who has acted professionally during their interactions.
The lawmaker said Loncar was “seeking to profit off medical marijuana” because she sought out a cannabis dispensary license.
“This is a person that did not get what she wanted out of state government. She apparently blames me for that,” Lang told reporters. “Some people lose in this process. Some people do not.”
By stepping down from his House leadership post, Lang is forfeiting a stipend of nearly $20,000. Lawmakers’ base pay is $67,836 a year. In addition to resigning from the Legislative Ethics Commission, Lang said he also was stepping down from a key rule-making panel responsible for putting in place the finer details of certain laws.
Loncar acknowledged that her company, Mother Earth Holistic Health, had unsuccessfully sought to open a dispensary in Plainfield.
Backing some of Loncar’s claims was Mike Graham, a longtime medical cannabis advocate who often teamed with her on legislation.
“He was always doing the ‘looking her up and down’ sort of thing,” Graham said of Lang. Graham said he witnessed Lang flirting with Loncar, but “she kept turning him down.”
Joining Loncar at the news conference was Denise Rotheimer, who sent shock waves through the Illinois political establishment last fall when she accused longtime Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein of sexual harassment.
Rotheimer said that Silverstein made unwanted comments about her appearance, sent her hundreds of Facebook messages and placed midnight phone calls as the two tried to pass a bill. Rotheimer said she reported Silverstein’s conduct to Senate President John Cullerton’s office in November 2016, but heard nothing.
Cullerton’s office said her complaint was forwarded to the legislative inspector general, a post that had sat empty for several years. Legislative leaders quickly moved to contain the fallout amid calls for action spurred by the #MeToo movement, and soon picked former federal prosecutor Julie Porter to temporarily fill the vacancy.
Porter determined that Silverstein did not engage in sexual harassment but “did behave in a manner unbecoming of a legislator.” Silverstein, who is married to 50th Ward Ald. Debra Silverstein, lost a re-election bid to his Far North Side and north suburban seat in the March primary.
In February, the Tribune disclosed aggressive and inappropriate text messages from Kevin Quinn, a top Madigan political and state government aide, to Alaina Hampton, who was working on House campaigns.
Madigan ousted Quinn, the brother of Ald. Marty Quinn, the political point man in the speaker’s long-held 13th Ward on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Hampton has filed a federal lawsuit, saying she was deprived of chances to advance in the speaker’s political organization as a result of the harassment.
That same month, Madigan bounced from his political organization lobbyist Shaw Decremer, a key political and campaign organizer who formerly worked as a ranking member of Madigan’s state government staff.
Madigan serves as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. He has resisted calls to step down over his handling of the allegations but has said he takes “responsibility” for not doing more.
On Thursday, Madigan issued a statement about the Lang allegations, saying he’s “hopeful” the legislative inspector general “will conduct this investigation quickly and thoroughly.” Madigan also said he appreciates “the courage it takes for individuals to come forward to share their experiences and in doing so urge us all to do better.”
For much of the spring, critics have called for a major overhaul of how ethics complaints are handled in the Capitol, saying lawmakers can’t be trusted to conduct honest and transparent investigations of themselves.
Legislators took some first steps toward that goal Thursday, overwhelmingly approving a bill that would give the inspector general the freedom to investigate complaints of sexual harassment without first having to get approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission, whose members are appointed by the four House and Senate leaders.
The bill, which cleared the Senate 54-0 and the House 110-0, was a last-minute victory for women lawmakers who had said earlier this week that they were resisting an attempt by the men who run the legislative caucuses to water down the measure.
The proposed new rules would create a four-person committee of former judges and prosecutors to search for a full-time inspector general to replace the temporary watchdog who was installed in the office last year. Under the current system, it’s up to legislative leaders to recommend an inspector general, who then must be approved by the ethics commission. Before Rotheimer’s complaint, the leaders couldn’t agree on an appointee, so the post was allowed to sit empty and complaints went unanswered as a result.
Such a prolonged vacancy would be prohibited under the new legislation, which would task the Illinois auditor general’s watchdog with taking up complaints if the legislative inspector general post is vacant for more than six months.
The measure also allows the inspector general to share information with a victim and others involved in a complaint. And it would task the inspector general with filing quarterly reports that disclose the type of complaints the office receives.
During House debate, Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, who has a leading role on a sexual harassment task force, noted that the measure was only “what could be agreed to by today’s deadline,” and said the atmosphere at the Capitol was still lacking a sense of seriousness around the issue.
“Some people around the building still joke about this issue, push back on common sense reforms,” said Jimenez, a Republican whose district includes Springfield. “Victims continue to hold press conferences because they believe that that action is more effective than our current process.”
Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, said the job of crafting new rules to address harassment complaints was complicated by competing desires to protect people from frivolous accusations and give victims the resources they need to have their complaints heard and investigated.
“We want to be transparent, we want people to understand that we are proactively dealing with anything unethical in this building, but by the same token not everything — not every allegation that’s made is real,” said McConnaughay, who sits on the ethics commission. “And trying to strike that balance and protect the privacy of the accuser and the accused until justice is served is complicated and it’s a difficult balance.”