Illinois Dems criticize Biden adviser, cut ties with PR firm over #MeToo conflict
The top Democrat in the Illinois House of Representatives said that he and his colleagues are cutting ties with the public relations firm SKDK after learning that the firm failed to disclose an apparent conflict of interest in a 2018 sexual harassment and retaliation scandal.
Emanuel "Chris" Welch, the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, made the announcement following NPR's reporting that SKDK helped advise a powerful Illinois politician on how to respond to a sexual harassment retaliation lawsuit. SKDK was simultaneously working with a #MeToo advocacy group supporting the accuser in the lawsuit.
"The glaring conflict of interest and conduct in this case sends a chilling message to victims and survivors that they can't even trust the people who claim to be their greatest supporters," Welch said in a statement to NPR. "We find this to be deeply disheartening and disqualifying for us."
Welch's decision was first reported by Capitol Fax, a newsletter that covers Illinois politics. In his comments to Capitol Fax, Welch specifically called out Anita Dunn, who is currently a top adviser in President Joe Biden's White House.
Dunn is also a co-founder of SKDK — the D stands for "Dunn" — and was a managing director of the firm at the time. Dunn personally led the firm's "crisis communications" work in response to the harassment scandal, which earned the firm more than $200,000 from 2018 to 2019 according to campaign finance records.
"We will not engage SKDK or Ms. Dunn in the future," Welch told Capitol Fax.
In past campaign cycles, Illinois Democrats have paid SKDK millions of dollars to assist with television advertising. Welch, however, has not worked with Dunn personally in the past.
"While this error in judgment happened more than five years ago, we understand the decision made by Illinois House Democrats," SKDK spokesperson Mike Czin said in an emailed statement. "We are proud of the work we have done to support survivors, and we will redouble our efforts to regain trust."
Welch's decision comes as Illinois Democrats prepare to host the Democratic National Convention and Biden's reelection campaign in Chicago in 2024.
As NPR reported last week, Dunn provided paid "crisis communications" assistance to the now-former Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, Michael Madigan, after he was sued for allegedly retaliating against a victim of sexual harassment. Madigan was not personally accused of harassment.
At the same time, Dunn's firm, SKDK, was assisting the woman who sued Madigan, a political campaign worker named Alaina Hampton, through the firm's partnership with the anti-harassment group Time's Up Legal Defense Fund.
Hampton said SKDK never disclosed that they were working for Madigan. Hampton only discovered that fact when it was revealed through evidence introduced during an unrelated federal corruption trial. The Time's Up Legal Defense Fund also said that SKDK failed to disclose their work for Madigan, and said that they shared Hampton's frustration with the firm.
After initially defending its actions, SKDK issued an apology and said that representing Madigan was an "error."
Dunn currently serves in the White House, and is widely considered part of Biden's inner circle. She previously referred NPR's questions to SKDK.
Illinois State Rep. Kelly M. Cassidy, a Democrat who represents a district in Chicago, told NPR she first alerted the House Speaker to the reporting about SKDK's apparent conflict of interest and urged him to cut ties with the firm.
She said it was the right move to "ensure that our vendors live up to our values as Democrats."
Cassidy described SKDK's actions as a "direct betrayal" of Hampton.
"Gut punch doesn't do it justice," Cassidy told NPR.
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