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Corruption trial reveals a #MeToo ethics entanglement for a top Biden adviser

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Evidence from a federal trial in Chicago revealed an apparent conflict of interest for Anita Dunn, who is now a top adviser inside the Biden White House.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

When she is not advising presidents, Anita Dunn has run a public relations firm, and her company advised both sides in a sexual harassment scandal. Her company gave advice to an Illinois politician who was accused, and it also supported the woman who first brought the claim of harassment and retaliation. In response to this revelation, Dunn's firm has apologized.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Dreisbach is covering the story. Tom, good morning.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did this incident from several years ago come to light?

DREISBACH: Well, this evidence came out during an unrelated corruption trial in Chicago. And let's just say upfront that investigators have not suggested any wrongdoing at all by Anita Dunn in connection with that corruption case. But for almost a decade, the Justice Department has been investigating one of the most powerful men in Illinois politics, former state House Speaker Michael Madigan. And in 2018, he was sued not for harassment himself, but for allegedly retaliating against a woman who was sexually harassed. Now, at the time, Madigan's associates discussed how to respond, and the FBI was listening in on a wiretap.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL MCCLAIN: So we finally hired a crisis management company.

TIM MAPES: Oh, you did. Who's that?

MCCLAIN: Anita Dunn. Anita Dunn.

DREISBACH: Madigan hired Anita Dunn and her public relations firm, SKDK, to provide crisis communications.

INSKEEP: Which people do in a situation like this. So what was wrong with that?

DREISBACH: Well, at the same time as Dunn's firm, SKDK, was working for Madigan, they were also partnered with the anti-harassment charity Time's Up Legal Defense Fund. And SKDK and the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund were supporting the woman who had sued Michael Madigan. Her name is Alaina Hampton.

INSKEEP: OK, so Anita Dunn and her firm, SKDK, were essentially working with both sides?

DREISBACH: That's right. They were working for the defendant, Madigan, at the same time they were supporting the plaintiff.

INSKEEP: Did they disclose that to Alaina Hampton?

DREISBACH: Hampton told me they never disclosed that to her and she never would've worked with them if she had known. At the time of her lawsuit, she was 28 years old, going against arguably the most powerful politician in Illinois. And the firm that she thought was helping her was also working for the other side, she told me.

ALAINA HAMPTON: Anita Dunn specifically is an adviser to the president of the United States. And to learn that she was helping advise my former employer on my retaliation case due to sexual harassment is just a clear conflict of interest. And it feels like a betrayal.

DREISBACH: The Time's Up Legal Defense Fund said they also were not told that SKDK was working for the other side, and they said they share Alaina Hampton's frustrations.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note she was not working for the White House at the time all these things happened years ago in 2018. She was running this PR firm. But she is working for the White House now. So what did she say?

DREISBACH: Well, I called her, and she just told me to contact her old firm and hung up. SKDK initially defended their work for Michael Madigan and denied there was really a conflict of interest because Alaina Hampton's primary point of contact with the firm was a contractor, not a full-time employee. But then the following day, they sent me a revised statement and said it was actually an error, in their words, to work with Madigan. And they said they apologized to Alaina Hampton. But Alaina Hampton told me that apology does not do enough to repair the damage done not just to her, but she said to the #MeToo movement more broadly and other women dealing with these issues.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Dreisbach, thanks so much.

DREISBACH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Dreisbach
Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.
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