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Local News

Democratic party asks Will County Board candidate to quit race after groping allegation

Joliet activist says she was groped, flashed after Will County Progressives event in 2016

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The Will County Democratic Central Committee said it asked a candidate for the Will County Board to withdraw from the race after a woman alleged he groped her in 2016.

The allegation centers around Joel Brown, an attorney from Romeoville who is running for a seat on the Will County Board in District 3 as a Democrat.

Nicki Serbin, a Joliet political activist, wrote a public Facebook post earlier this month in which she said a candidate for the board flashed and groped her, although she did not name Brown.

“The dirtbag that flashed and groped me when I was alone in an office with him in 2016 is now running for Will County Board with the support of the local party. Gross. I need to go manage my anger. #metoo,” Serbin wrote.

In an interview with The Herald-News, Serbin identified Brown as the person who allegedly groped her.

“I felt preyed upon,” she said.

She said they met through Will County Progressives, a political group she helped lead in 2016. She said Brown would come to social meetings the group held.

In the late summer of 2016, Serbin said she and Brown were alone cleaning up after a meeting at the group’s “clubhouse” in Joliet. Serbin said Brown asked her if she was single, if she had ever dated a “Black guy” or if she had a “hook-up buddy.”

Serbin said she told Brown she was not interested in dating anybody. Brown then asked if she was sure, pulled down his pants and exposed his genitals, Serbin said.

She said she tried to “defuse the situation with humor” with a joke and told him she “wasn’t taking any applications at this time.” Serbin said Brown proceeded to put his right arm around her and groped her breast with his left hand.

Serbin said at that point, she attempted to scoot away from him and repeatedly said, “No thank you.” Brown stopped and then left, she said.

Serbin said that very soon after the incident she told her friend Jonathan Mulick, who was also part of the organization at the time, about what allegedly happened. Mulick confirmed that Serbin told him about the incident and that her story was consistent with what she told him back in 2016.

“I have no reason to doubt her,” Mulick said.

Over the next four years, Serbin said, she told a handful of fellow political activists about the incident, including County Board members.

Democratic members Jackie Traynere, Amanda Koch and Meta Mueller confirmed that Serbin told them directly about the incident.

Koch said Serbin’s account to The Herald-News was “very consistent” with what she told her in 2017. Back then, Serbin was helping Koch’s campaign for the County Board.

Mueller said Serbin told her of the incident about a year ago.

Koch said she thought Brown should “do the right thing” and step out of the race.

Mueller said she thought the party leadership should address the incident with Brown, adding that “if he did this, I don’t think he should represent residents.”

Traynere said she was also concerned about the allegation and confirmed the account with Serbin earlier this year. She said that now that the allegation was made public, “it’s something we’re going to have to talk about.”

Bill Thoman, the former chairman of the Will County Central Democratic Committee, said Serbin also told him that Brown flashed her. Thoman said he spoke directly to Brown last year to warn him the allegation might come up ahead of the election.

“I tried to help him understand and anticipate that this was going to be an issue,” Thoman said of his discussion with Brown.

Thoman said he was unsure about whether Brown should withdraw from the race or not.

“It’s just unfortunate,” he said.

Suzanna Ibarra, who still leads the Will County Progressives, also confirmed that Serbin told her that Brown had flashed and groped her in 2016. While both women said they had a falling out since then, Ibarra said she thought the allegation was credible and that Brown should “answer to these allegations.”

Nora Gruenberg, chairman of the Will County Democratic Central Committee, said in a statement Friday that “any allegation of harassment or discrimination is taken very seriously, and we will take appropriate action in response to founded allegations.”

Gruenberg added, “To that end, the Will County Democratic Central Committee has asked Joel Brown to withdraw his candidacy for the Will County Board’s 3rd District.”

Brown confirmed that he was aware of Serbin’s Facebook post and that the Democratic party asked him to quit the race.

“I’m staying in the race,” Brown said.

He said in a statement that he and Serbin “engaged in a conversation ... that became sexual in nature.”

“Due to our conversation I misinterpreted Ms. Serbin’s signals,” he said in the statement. “When she demonstrated that she was not interested, I backed away. We continued to talk for another hour and a half and then we left in our vehicles and I went home.”

He added, “I take full responsibility for my actions.”

Serbin said she felt “a little bit of shame” for not speaking publicly about the alleged incident sooner, although she had worried about any potential fallout, citing Brown’s status. She said she never reported the alleged incident to law enforcement.

Brown is an attorney practicing criminal defense and family law, according to the website for his law firm, Reeder & Brown. He also was an assistant state’s attorney for Will County, according to the website.

Serbin said she had “nothing to gain” from publicly accusing Brown and said she worried for other women in county government if he were elected. She said she hopes Brown withdraws from the race and that the Will County Democratic party can replace him on the ballot for November.

“I can’t stay quiet,” she said. “I can’t pretend it didn’t happen.”

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