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Domestic battery case resurfaces as longtime Democratic lawmaker Robert Rita faces primary challenge

CHICAGO,  march  8, 2018- Fifteen years ago, a jury acquitted state Rep. Robert Rita after a woman he had dated accused him of barging into her house in Evergreen Park, pulling her to the floor and threatening to rape her.

Now the case is resurfacing as the Democratic state lawmaker from south suburban Blue Island runs for re-election in a new political climate shaped by a sexual harassment scandal in Springfield as well as the nationwide #MeToo movement.

Emboldened by a belief that her story carries more resonance today, Rita’s former girlfriend is speaking out and siding with a female challenger, Mary Carvlin, in the March 20 primary. Carvlin also has raised the issue in her campaign, calling a news conference to highlight the case and questioning Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s continued support for Rita.

“It’s almost like a second chance,” Liz Hogan, Rita’s accuser, told the Tribune.

Rita started his first term not long before his trial. At the time, Rita called the pending charges “unfounded” and labeled them “false accusations,” according to the Associated Press. “I did not do the horrible acts I was accused of,” Rita said.

Madigan, the state Democratic Party chairman, backed Rita after his 2002 arrest and in every election since. The speaker’s financial support for Rita includes tens of thousands of dollars this campaign season for printing, mailing and staff costs.

“The not guilty verdict in the trial and his conduct since does not suggest there’s any merit to this political charge,” said Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown.

But Rita went on to win the November general election and was acquitted the following April, a few months after he was sworn in as a legislator. A Tribune story at the time quoted Rita as saying it was “nice to be able to put this behind me.”

Hogan, now a married pre-kindergarten teacher at a South Side Catholic school, said she looks back at the not-guilty verdicts and still shakes her head. “There was no justice served,” she said.

Rita’s domestic battery case has received little attention in the races he has run every two years, most of them uncontested.

The political resurrection of the criminal case by Carvlin’s campaign, news stories and now Hogan puts Rita in an uncomfortable spot. Having already faced his accuser in court and won, he now finds himself on the defense again, this time in the court of public opinion.

In recent weeks, Hogan reached out to Carvlin and offered her support after the candidate’s news conference denouncing Rita. Carvlin said she considered Hogan credible and Rita unacceptable to hold office.

“It’s extremely painful for a woman to talk about this sort of thing,” Carvlin said. “He never made any kind of public apology.”

Carvlin’s candidacy is considered a long shot. A junior high school Spanish teacher from Blue Island, Carvlin has raised only about $3,500; Rita had nearly $746,000 in the bank at the end of 2017. In the past two months, Rita has reported tens of thousands more in contributions, including nearly $45,000 worth of in-kind donations from Madigan-controlled funds.

But voters now are looking at campaigns through a different political lens because the #MeToo movement “has kind of changed the environment,” said Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“These days just about anything is fair game,” Wheeler said.

The #MeToo movement engulfed Illinois politics late last year when a female lobbyist accused state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, of making unwanted comments and late-night calls and sending hundreds of Facebook messages. An inspector general report found Silverstein fell short of sexual harassment but had engaged in conduct “unbecoming of a legislator.”

Just last month, Speaker Madigan ousted from his political organization two men who long served as top lieutenants — one over sexual harassment via repeated inappropriate texts to a female campaign worker and the other over what a female lawmaker called abusive behavior during a campaign.

Seeking to send a “crystal clear” message, Madigan this week warned House Democrats to keep relationships with staff “strictly professional” or he will “personally get involved to put an end to it.”

“The speaker has spoken and taken action,” said Brown, the Madigan spokesman. “This shows his concerns and beliefs.”

In an interview, Hogan said that she had been trying to break up gradually with Rita when he showed up unexpectedly at her Evergreen Park home just before 7 a.m. July 15, 2002.

The daughter of the late Democratic Rep. Andy McGann, Hogan at the time was a Cook County deputy sheriff’s officer and single mother of three known as Elizabeth Miller.

Hogan told jurors Rita had been angry because she had called his cousin and asked him to get Rita to stop contacting her, according to news reports. The cousin, who also served as Rita’s campaign manager at the time, denied ever receiving such a call.

“I had let the dog out, and I came back in, and all of a sudden, I see him at the door,” Hogan said in an interview. “I tried to shut it, and he pushed it back, pushing me into the house.”

As in the trial, Hogan described a struggle in which Rita barged in, pulled her hair and threatened to rape her. She said that when she ran to the bathroom, he chased her and then pulled her to the floor. “I don’t know what happened that made him stop and leave,” Hogan said. “But he did.”

Despite Rita’s acquittal by a jury of nine women and three men, prosecutors sought to extend the existing order of protection against him. Enrico Mirabelli, Rita’s defense attorney, recalled in an interview last week that he strenuously objected to the extension. The two sides eventually reached a settlement that allowed the order of protection to expire July 31, 2003.

The settlement was a compromise that helped avoid a lengthy and costly hearing, according to Mirabelli and documents he provided to the Tribune.

Mirabelli describes Rita as “ironically lucky” that Hogan reported the alleged incident immediately instead of years later, when it would have been harder for Rita to defend himself.

“Bob is almost fortunate because his accuser came forward in a timely manner, and he had a chance to confront his accuser in a court of law and challenge the allegations,” Mirabelli said. “Most of these men accused today (of incidents that occurred years ago) are not afforded an opportunity to defend themselves like that.”

Though the trial played out nearly 15 years ago, Mirabelli said he still often refers to it when he discusses the impact of “witness credibility” in a case. Hogan testified during the trial for more than 3.5 hours, much of that time under cross-examination, according to news reports.

As an example, Mirabelli noted that Hogan testified she could not recall whether she had vacationed with Rita in the Bahamas in the months before the alleged attack. Mirabelli had hoped the trip would diminish Hogan’s assertion that she was frightened of Rita for more than a year before his arrest.

A female friend of Hogan’s then testified that she had watched Hogan’s children while Hogan and Rita went on the trip, Mirabelli said.

Looking back, Hogan now says she was too embarrassed to admit she went on vacation with Rita.

In addition to Carvlin, Rita has a second opponent in the primary, Kim Koschnitzky, a first-time candidate who has raised only $1,250.

A review of Koschnitzky’s nominating petitions shows some people who helped her gather signatures to get onto the ballot have ties to Madigan’s political operations as volunteers and donors.

Allegations of ghost candidacies have been raised in prior campaigns involving Rita. But in an emailed response to Tribune questions, Koschnitzky said she is running a legitimate campaign. She dismissed the relevance of any connections to other political organizations.

Brown said he had no information on her candidacy.

Koschnitzky, who lives in Oak Forest but whose family has long ties to Blue Island, declined to comment on the prior allegations against Rita and said she did not want to run a negative campaign.

But for Hogan, the primary offers another – and, perhaps, final – chance to be heard.

“People are still remembering it,” Hogan said. (www.chicagotribune.com)


Posted by on 8 marzo 2018. Filed under News From The World. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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