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Lawmaker Apologizes For Saying She’d Like Republican’s Family To Die Of Legionnaires’

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A statue is shown outside of the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy.

A statue is shown outside of the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy.

Andrew Gill/WBEZ

An Illinois state representative apologized Wednesday for saying she’d like a Republican colleague’s family to get sick and die of Legionnaires’ disease.

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) said she used a “poor choice of words” during a debate Tuesday afternoon on a bill relating to the deadly Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the state-run Quincy veterans’ home.

Kifowit said she meant to hypothetically ask state Rep. Peter Breen (R-Lombard) how he would like it if his family got sick and died of Legionnaires’.

“I would never wish any harm or mortality on anybody’s family and that includes the Breen family and anybody else’s,” Kifowit said in a speech on the House floor Wednesday.

Her apology came after Tim Schneider, the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, and Bill Brady, the Senate minority leader, called on Kifowit to resign. Democratic Gov.-elect JB Pritzker had earlier named Kifowit to a committee to address veterans’ issues.

Breen publicly accepted her apology, but said if Kifowit had made the “heinous death wish” against his family somewhere other than the House chambers — in the parking lot or on a voicemail — then she would have been arrested.

Kifowit’s comments came during a House of Representatives debate on a measure to increase the payouts families who are suing the state for negligence in the Legionnaires’ deaths of their loved ones.

State law limited what those families could be awarded at $100,000, which was tied for the lowest such cap in the U.S. The House voted Tuesday to increase that amount to $2 million, narrowly overriding a veto from Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Before the debate, Breen spoke out against the measure, saying the higher legal payouts would be a boon to trial lawyers. That prompted the harsh response from Kifowit.

“To the representative from Lombard, I would like to make him a broth of legionella and pump it into the water system of his loved ones so that they can be infected, they can be mistreated, they can sit and suffer by getting aspirin instead of being properly treated and ultimately die,” Kifowit said during the floor debate Tuesday.

Eleven of the neglect lawsuits against the state stem from the 2015 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy. That outbreak killed 12 residents and sickened dozens more. The 12th lawsuit results from another Legionnaires’-related death in 2017.

Repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease have been the subject of a yearlong WBEZ investigation into how Rauner’s administration has handled the public health crisis.

Many of the families who are suing have told WBEZ their lawsuits were not filed to get rich, but to hold the state accountable for the deaths of their parents.

Ryan Schuenke, who represents some of them, said that while the legislature’s action changes what his clients could win in court, the cases continue to linger. Many of the lawsuits have been pending since 2016 as the state has fought back against the families’ claims, denying negligence.

“It begs the question of why do it if you didn’t want these families to benefit from the legislation,” Schuenke said.

Pritzker has said the families are entitled to compensation and he frequently criticized Rauner’s handling of the outbreaks on the campaign trail. But he has been non-committal about whether he would settle the families’ lawsuits once he takes office in January.

Illinois’ $100,000 cap on Court of Claims judgments had been in place since 1972 and was the lowest in America, tied with five other states, according to the American Association for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing trial lawyers.

Rauner, who has denied his office or administration has been neglectful in the handling of the outbreaks, used his amendatory veto to change that amount to $300,000 in August. He and other Republican lawmakers said their opposition to the measure stemmed from the fact that the bill also increases the payouts to future lawsuits against the state unrelated to the Quincy veterans’ home.

Three Republican lawmakers who had voted in favor of the bill in May — including Breen — switched their votes from yes to no. Four other Republicans who voted yes were either absent for Tuesday’s vote or chose not to vote.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

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