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Top Democratic strategy firm SKDK told The 19th on Wednesday that it was an “error” to have advised a since-indicted Illinois House speaker on #MeToo claims against his aides as SKDK representatives also worked with one of the women who had levied them.
SKDK was addressing newly released court records that show how in 2018, as the #MeToo movement gathered force, Anita Dunn and her firm, SKDK, advised then-Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan on sexual harassment claims made against his longtime chief of staff, Tim Mapes, and political operative Kevin Quinn. Dunn is one of the most sought-after Democratic strategists and a longtime confidante of President Joe Biden, whom she now advises from within the White House.
SKDK, through its public relations work for the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, assisted Quinn’s accuser, Alaina Hampton, without disclosing to her that they were also working on Madigan’s behalf. SKDK had a public relationship with the since-shuttered Time’s Up, and its affiliated legal defense fund was a partnership between the strategy firm and the National Women’s Law Center. Hampton’s case highlights the complex power hierarchies that survivors of sexual harassment and assault must navigate as they pursue accountability.
“Had I known they were working with him I would have never applied for funding or PR support with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund,” Hampton told The 19th. “I think, at a minimum, it is a gross conflict of interest and happened at a time when I was so vulnerable, and I couldn’t trust anyone, and I was being blackballed in the state of Illinois where I worked.”
SKDK spokesperson Michael Czin told The 19th his firm “judged that helping [Madigan] and his staff to take responsibility and correct systemic workplace issues benefited the movement as a whole.”
“We understand the concerns that have been raised. In retrospect, we realize that the decision to work with then-Speaker Madigan’s campaign on these matters was an error in light of the support Ms. Hampton was receiving from another firm through a separate initiative we were proud to support,” Czin said in a statement.
“We apologize to Ms. Hampton and her allies and reiterate our full support for the survivor community,” he added.
As of publication time, Hampton had not heard from SKDK directly.
Hampton was a client of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which was co-founded by Hilary Rosen, then a vice chair at SKDK, who also served on the Time’s Up board. SKDK provided public relations advice to the fund and its clients, and SKDK representatives connected the fund’s clients with local public relations consultants. In 2020, the National Women’s Law Center paid SKDK more than $300,000 for its consulting work. SKDK has also advised survivors on a pro bono basis.
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Time’s Up was launched by a group of Hollywood women in early 2018, and its fund was created to provide financial resources to survivors of workplace sexual harassment and assault. Time’s Up ran into trouble a few years after its launch, when it came to light that board co-chair and its legal defense fund co-founder Roberta Kaplan had advised then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his staff as they tried to discredit a woman who accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. Kaplan resigned. Then Time’s Up’s chief executive, Tina Tchen did too. Tchen told The 19th shortly before her resignation that she had a “blindspot” regarding leaders’ relationships with powerful Democrats and their donors. Time’s Up disbanded earlier this year, transferring all remaining funds to the legal defense fund at the National Women’s Law Center.
SKDK’s ties to the Time’s Up apparatus added to a perception of partisanship for some survivors. The “D” in SKDK stands for Dunn, the longtime Democratic strategist who advised Madigan. Dunn has a low profile outside of Washington but her influence is well known inside the Beltway. She was a senior communications adviser to former President Barack Obama and is now a senior adviser to Biden. NBC News recently described her as Washington’s “grande dame of public relations.” The White House referred The 19th to SKDK for comment on this story as it relates to Dunn’s work while in the private sector.
Hampton, a Democratic campaign operative, filed a federal lawsuit in March 2018 that accused Quinn of inappropriate sexual behavior and Madigan’s inner circle of retaliation. Knowing it would be difficult to challenge the most powerful political operation in her state, she hired a local attorney and public relations adviser. At the end of that year, Hampton applied to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund for financial assistance. “Time’s Up was an organization that made me feel safe and like I had support,” Hampton told The 19th.
While Hampton did not know it at the time, Dunn and SKDK were already advising Madigan. Hampton mostly dealt with Melody Meyer, who used an SKDK email address and was listed in the 2018 Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund’s annual report as “PR Counsel & Coordinator for the Fund, SKDKnickerbocker.” SKDK said that Meyer was a contractor who was brought in to coordinate communications representation for survivors and did not work on behalf of other SKDK clients.
The full scope of Dunn’s work on behalf of Madigan is not detailed in the court records, but exchanges between his associates discussing Dunn’s involvement in advising the speaker on #MeToo accusations in his office were made public during a federal trial last month. Mapes was convicted of perjury over his efforts to protect Madigan, who was indicted in 2022 on federal bribery and racketeering charges and will go on trial next year. A September 2018 email exchange between Mapes and a longtime Madigan confidante discussed the genesis of an op-ed that Madigan published in the Chicago Tribune related to the #MeToo accusations levied against his aides. In it, he said that it was his “personal mission to take this issue head-on and correct past mistakes. I wish I would have done so sooner.” A Madigan associate wrote to Mapes: “We landed on SKDKnickerbocker, the lead is Anita Dunn. She met with us and the Speaker and laid out a plan. The S[peaker] liked it and he hired her.” Political committees connected to Madigan paid SKDK at least $87,500 between August and October 2018.
Hampton’s case settled in 2019 and Madigan-affiliated political committees agreed to pay her $275,000, most of which went to legal fees and to reimburse the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. An Illinois legislative inspector general also determined in 2019 that the accused Madigan aides had created a “hostile, and offensive working environment.”
Throughout her legal proceedings, Hampton would regularly share upcoming case developments with SKDK so they could help her prepare for media coverage. She said that it was “shocking but not shocking” to find out during Mapes’ trial that SKDK was working with the very man sitting atop the power structure she was navigating as she went public with her #MeToo claim.
“A lot of people who work in politics prioritize power and money, and being close to people who are powerful,” Hampton said.
Disclosure: Hilary Rosen and the National Women’s Law Center have been financial supporters of The 19th.