The day after WBEZ first reported on the stories of grieving families with loved ones who died from Legionnaires’ disease at the Quincy veterans’ home, a top aide in Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office had an idea: Could they tie the outbreaks to the previous administration?
Newly released state records show reaction to the story immediately permeated the governor’s office.
Shortly after WBEZ published the original investigation on Dec. 12 of last year, one Democratic state lawmaker called for an audit examining the fatal Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the facility. The governor’s deputy chief of staff, Darlene Senger, floated a novel — if highly politicized — idea to shift blame for the deaths of the elderly Illinois Veterans Home residents.
“We can maybe tie this back to Duckworth,” Senger wrote in an email obtained through an open-records request. Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled Iraq War veteran, ran the state agency that oversees the Quincy home under former Governors Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich.
Senger’s one-sentence trial balloon, which took Rauner’s office four months to produce after an open-records tug-of-war with WBEZ, reached the governor’s chief of staff and deputy governor. Neither pushed back on the idea, the email thread shows.
Some Republicans have criticized Democrats for politicizing the public-health tragedy in Quincy, which has claimed a total of 13 lives. But Senger’s commentary calls into question whether some of the governor’s top aides were doing exactly that in order to redirect the backlash from initial stories about the 11 victims’ families now suing the state for neglect.
The Legionnaires’ crisis in Quincy already has become a dominant issue dogging Rauner’s re-election bid. Now, it has potential to be a serious issue in the race for state comptroller, an office devoted to paying government bills. Senger, a Republican, is trying to unseat Democratic incumbent Susana Mendoza.
“Darlene Senger’s email, trying to blame a decorated war hero instead of putting the blame where it belonged with her boss, is the kind of the thing that wins you the ‘worst person in the world’ award. I mean, who thinks that way?” Mendoza said in an interview.
On Tuesday, Senger’s campaign was unapologetic about the remark, saying it was driven by her belief that “chronic underfunding” under previous Democratic administrations had jeopardized critical maintenance at the facilities.
“There is no doubt that the lack of proper funding for veterans over the last decade has exacerbated the problems we currently face,” she said in a prepared statement. “If we choose to ignore the past, systemic failures to fund our veterans’ programs, then we are destined to continue to face these challenges in the future and that was the point of my comment — we need to understand how and when these problems started in order to find long-term solutions.”
Senger’s campaign declined an interview request, citing other scheduling commitments.
For her part, Duckworth dismissed the sentiment of the email as baldly political.
“I’m shocked that anybody would be focused on political gain when you should be focused on veterans’ health. Bottom line,” Duckworth said in an interview. “This is the frustration that I have. Why are we wasting time on this kind of stuff instead of troubleshooting and what do we need to do to prevent another outbreak?”
The existence of Senger’s email has been known since Rich Miller, publisher of the Capitol Fax political blog, mentioned it two days after WBEZ’s initial report last December. But until now, the email itself has not been released by the governor’s office nor seen publicly.
For months, Rauner’s administration has rejected a series of open-records requests from WBEZ as too burdensome. Some documents it has chosen to release have been heavily redacted — to the point of being unreadable.
Senger’s original email was in a thread that began when a spokeswoman for the state Capital Development Board circulated a Dec. 13, 2017 news story about state Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, filing legislation in response to WBEZ’s reporting, which aired that day. Cullerton’s resolution, which would later pass the Senate, orders an audit of the state’s response to the Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the Quincy home in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh then forwarded the news story to the governor’s chief of staff, Rodger Heaton, Deputy Governor Trey Childress, Senger, and others within the governor’s office. Within a few hours, Senger weighed in to that group with her apparent suggestion to shift blame for the crisis to Duckworth.
The only response came from an agency spokeswoman, pointing out that Duckworth was the state Veterans’ Affairs director between 2006 and 2009. In a report released last month, Rauner’s administration cited a spike in pneumonia rates at the facility in 2006 and 2008, but acknowledged there were no confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ at the facility then. Testing for the illness began only in 2015.
“I am really shocked that not a single person said, ‘That is the dumbest and stupidest and actually shameless and grossest idea we’ve heard in a long time,’” Mendoza said.
Duckworth has been among the harshest critics of the Rauner administration’s handling of the Legionnaires’ crisis at the Quincy facility. She expressed dismay and disgust at Senger’s email and called it a politicization of a tragedy that claimed veterans’ lives.
“My focus has always been on taking care of the veterans first. And I’m not going to dignify that email from her,” she continued. “Look, politics is a rough business. But at least put the health and wellbeing of our nation’s heroes ahead of your campaign strategy.”
In an emailed statement, Rauner’s office did not directly address the comment from his former $117,400-a-year legislative liaison.
“Our office has focused on the veterans at the Quincy Veterans Home and their health and safety,” Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold wrote. “We are engaged in ongoing large-scale remediation efforts while providing top quality skilled nursing care and planning for the future of the home and its residents.”
The response from Rauner aides did not answer specific questions about whether Rauner shared Senger’s supposition that Duckworth was somehow to blame for the crisis at the Quincy home, whether there were any continued internal efforts in the governor’s office to tie Duckworth to the controversy, or whether Senger ever was confronted by Rauner aides about her bid to politicize the matter.
WBEZ’s pursuit of the Senger email has been a lesson in the cat-and-mouse manner in which the Rauner administration has used exemptions within the state Freedom of Information Act to avoid the timely release of public documents. Under the statute, governments typically are allowed five business days to produce records. For this particular email, it took four months.
WBEZ’s first open-records request to the governor’s office for Legionnaires’-related documents, including emails referencing Duckworth and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, came on Dec. 15, 2017. Since then, the administration twice rejected the inquiry as too burdensome before relenting in late April.