Airport security official left Tollway post amid sex-for-favors allegations
The city official overseeing Chicago’s airport security was hired last year even though the Illinois Tollway had fired him after a female employee alleged he sought sex and money in exchange for work-related favors, Tollway documents show. Jeffrey Redding, who is a point person in the investigation of the United Airlines passenger-dragging fiasco at O’Hare International Airport, told the Tribune he had a relationship with the woman, a toll collector, but it was consensual and not the reason he was terminated. He emphatically denied the employee’s allegations about coercion.
“That’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true. That’s absolutely not true,” Redding, who is now the city’s deputy aviation commissioner of security, told the Tribune. Last week, Redding testified before the Chicago City Council in a hearing devoted to the United passenger incident and was questioned about the role his security force plays at city airports. Three aviation officers have been placed on paid leave pending an investigation into how the passenger was dragged off the flight on April 9.
Redding started in the aviation post in February 2016, according to the department, a little over six months after being fired from the Tollway, where he was chief of toll operations. A “confidential” Tollway memorandum written by an assistant attorney general for the state and obtained by the Tribune concluded that Redding’s behavior “raised serious sexual harassment issues” and “warranted immediate termination.”
The woman was interviewed on Aug. 10, 2015, and Redding was fired a day later, according to records and a statement from the Tollway. The memo, dated three days after the firing, was written by Jennifer Bugaj, an assistant attorney general assigned to the Tollway who interviewed the woman along with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer for the Tollway. Bugaj wrote that she found the employee “credible” and that text messages provided by the employee “corroborate their relationship and much of what they discussed and what occurred between them.”
“As a supervisor, his behavior was especially troubling and created meaningful exposure for the agency if not dealt with promptly and firmly,” wrote Bugaj, who no longer works for the state.
The subject line for memo reads “Employee investigation Jeffrey Redding.”
There is no indication in the memo that Bugaj interviewed Redding for her report. However, in statements given to the Tribune this week, the Tollway said two other state employees talked to Redding about accusations against him. The Tollway said Redding was fired “after multiple violations of Illinois Tollway personnel policy and procedures were identified and disclosed to him including improper communications and a complete disregard for his position.”
“The investigation,” Tollway spokeswoman Cindy Klima wrote, “included interviewing the parties involved and the review of the electronic communications that ultimately corroborated the accusations and led to his termination.”
Asked whether the parties included Redding, Klima answered via email: “Jeff Redding was interviewed and the multiple violations of Tollway policy and procedure were presented to him by the Tollway’s attorney and Chief of Staff.”
The Tribune read the Tollway statements to Redding and he responded: “Good enough. That’s a lie.”
“They did a terrible job, and now they’re trying to justify it,” he said. Redding said the first time he heard of the allegations in the memo was when the Tribune told him. He said he met with the two Tollway officials briefly the day he was fired. He said they fired him immediately and “may have” mentioned the woman’s name. He said he asked whether he was under any criminal or administrative investigation and was told no.
“That’s not an interview in any sense,” Redding said.
He also said: “Nobody talked to me about sexual relations on the job.”
Redding said he believed that he was terminated from the $151,200-a-year Tollway position as part of a housecleaning in the first year of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration so that the Republican chief executive could install his own people. The 54-year-old Redding, a former Chicago police officer, told the Tribune he previously had a consensual relationship with the toll collector.
“If there was a mistake that I made,” Redding said, it was having a relationship with a subordinate. But he said the encounters outlined in the Tollway memo are “fictional.”
Tollway officials should have given him a chance to respond to the woman’s allegations, he said.
“My having not had an opportunity to even counter those charges in the appropriate venue, that’s not cool at all,” Redding said, saying the Tollway didn’t give him due process. “It’s inappropriate.”
Jim Wagner, the Tollway’s former inspector general, said he left shortly before Redding was fired. When he left, Wagner said, there had not been an investigation into Redding regarding any matter. Yet Wagner said the Tollway would have been allowed to fire Redding without saying why because he was a top manager who could be fired at the will of the agency leaders.
“They may not have wanted to get into it,” Wagner said. “At-will people could simply be terminated.”
Redding told the Tribune the contents of the memo were not discussed when he interviewed for the aviation post because he hadn’t known about it and that he explained his Tollway departure as part of a Rauner effort to eliminate workers from prior administrations. Tollway records show Redding was hired into the Tollway post during Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s first term and he stayed on through fellow Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s tenure. Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans told the Tribune she was unaware of the Tollway memo when she interviewed Redding for the job, saying she also recalled his explanation for leaving the Tollway was that he was swept out by an incoming administration.
“He definitely interviewed well,” Evans said. “When you meet with him or speak with him, he’s a very together guy.”
Evans said Redding was backgrounded by City Hall before he was hired. She said she reviewed his Tollway personnel file and saw consistently high marks. She also said his experience in dealing well with two unions at the Tollway was “highly desirable,” given they also are based at the airports. Since the memo came to her attention, she said, she has read it and talked to Redding about it. She said she also has conferred with the city’s corporation counsel and said she was advised that it would have been irregular if Redding and corroborating witnesses were not interviewed.
In her view, Evans said, the Tollway “kind of dropped the ball” by not taking the investigation further. “It protects everybody,” she said. “It protects the victim, and it protects everybody against false complaints.”
Asked whether she believed it to be a false complaint, Evans said: “I don’t have an opinion on it.”
Told of the Tollway’s statement this week, which attributed Evans’ firing to “multiple violations” of state policies, Evans called it “significant new information.”
She suggested that what Redding told the city at his initial job interview and in the more recent interview about the Tollway memo is important. “If we confirm that he did not give us complete information or did not give us correct information in either one of those situations, that is a very serious matter,” she said. Evans said Redding is “absolutely” involved in the United investigation. “Those officers report up through him,” she said. Overall, she said, she’s been pleased with Redding’s work and work ethic, saying he’s picked up accolades from airlines and unions.
“He continues to be very committed,” Evans said, calling Redding “very effective on the job.”
The Tollway memo was based on a five-hour interview with the toll collector, who recounted her experiences working for Redding and instances when she felt compelled to have sexual relations with him.
“She states that he always told her she had a choice, but she knew if she didn’t do what he wanted, he would be upset,” according to the memo. In one instance, Assistant Attorney General Bugaj wrote in the memo, the woman said Redding asked for sex in exchange for changing a poor performance review.
According to the memo, the sexual relationship included encounters on Tollway property, “which would constitute an inappropriate use of tollway property and violation of tollway policies.”
Through the state, the Tribune received additional agency records, including correspondence between state officials who said texts had provided the “foundation for Mr. Redding’s termination” and “they spurred into motion an investigation into Mr. Redding’s wrongdoing.”
The Tollway, responding to a freedom-of-information request, also provided some texts between Redding and the employee but not all, citing privacy concerns. Those texts include an exchange in which the employee comments about potentially engaging in a sexual act with Redding.
“Omg … You were serious about it in your office too weren’t you?!” she wrote. He texted back: “Of course!!! Duh!!!!”
In the state memo, Bugaj wrote that the toll collector indicated Redding would “pressure her to resume a sexual relationship with him from time to time after she had tried to cut it off.”
“She also stated that he expected sexual favors or money in exchange for work-related advancements or favors, and that threats were made by Mr. Redding indicating her job could be in jeopardy,” according to the memo.
The memo gives the employee’s description of a 2013 meeting in a Woodfield Mall parking lot, where she said Redding demanded she leave her cellphone in her car and join him in his car. She alleged that Redding then asked for at least $500 to make a work-related Tollway investigation into her “disappear,” according to the memo. She refused to pay, but he kept asking to make the “situation” go away, saying she faced the prospect of being fired, according to the memo. Bugaj wrote that the employee said Redding was taking advantage of her being under surveillance over an on-the-job injury or family and medical leave dispute. But, she said, Redding later told her he only needed the money because he took a vacation with another woman who did not pay for it.
Redding, when interviewed by the Tribune, denied trading any work favors for sexual favors, adding he “fought against bullies and abuse all of my life.” And he denied asking the employee for money. He also said he never had sex with the employee during work hours, at his office or other Tollway property. Redding worked for nearly 20 years with the Chicago Police Department, including in internal affairs and at the city inspector general’s office; he took a job with the Tollway inspector general’s office in 2006 and moved up quickly to become chief of toll operations. Redding said his experience “qualified me for this position” at the Aviation Department.
In his city aviation position, Redding said, he has received “nothing but praise” for his work. His annual city salary is $118,020 about $33,000 less than he made at the Tollway, the city said.