Lawyers with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office appeared before a downstate grand jury Thursday, marking an escalation of the criminal probe into how Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration handled fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at a state-run veterans’ home.
The attorneys who went before the grand jury in Adams County, where the Quincy veterans’ home is located, are involved in an ongoing criminal investigation into Legionnaires’ deaths there, a source with knowledge of the investigation confirmed to WBEZ.
Aides to Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Republican governor clashed after Thursday’s court appearance, raising over her office’s dual legal role in the matter and his administration’s true interest in uncovering whether crimes contributed to 14 residents’ deaths.
Grand juries operate in secrecy and authorize charges, known as indictments, against criminal defendants. In this case, it’s not clear who Madigan may be targeting or whether criminal charges will even arise.
The attorney general announced her probe on Oct. 3 — the same day Rauner debated his Democratic rival in next month’s election rival, JB Pritzker, in Quincy.
Rauner has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in his administration and has derided Madigan’s investigation as a political ploy. The four-term attorney general has not endorsed Pritzker in this year’s gubernatorial campaign.
A spokeswoman for the governor on Thursday noted that the attorney general’s office is representing the administration in lawsuits against the state from 12 families who lost loved ones to Legionnaires’ at the home.
In that role before the obscure legal venue known as the Illinois Court of Claims, Madigan’s office has argued on behalf of Rauner’s administration that no liability occurred on the state’s part in connection with those 12 deaths — a position in seeming contradiction to the attorney general’s possible pursuit of criminal charges in the matter.
“In the documents filed with the court by the Illinois attorney general in each of the cases, the attorney general denied any state negligence or wrongdoing,” Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh said in an email. “The attorney general also denied the claimants are due damages.”
A Madigan aide responded to Rauner administration’s implication that the state’s top law enforcement officer is making contradictory legal arguments in trying to establish accountability for the Legionnaires’ outbreaks.
“Unlike a Court of Claims case where the plaintiff alleges that the negligence of the state or state agency caused injury, a criminal investigation does not look at the liability of the state or a state agency. It looks at whether individuals acted outside the scope of their authority and committed crimes,” Madigan spokeswoman Maura Possley said.
“Every state employee involved in overseeing the care provided by the Quincy Veterans’ Home, including the Governor’s staff, should want to get to the bottom of whether crimes were committed in events that lead to the deaths of more than a dozen people.”
Madigan’s action followed a WBEZ investigation that began last December into recurring Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the facility that have been linked to 14 residents’ deaths since 2015. Nearly 70 residents and staff have been sickened by the illness in that time.
Madigan’s announcement earlier this month indicated she was focused on whether residents, their families, and the public were properly notified by Rauner’s administration after it had confirmed cases of the sometimes-fatal form of pneumonia.
WBEZ has reported that the state waited six days in 2015 before making any public acknowledgement of Legionnaires’ at the home, which killed a dozen residents that year.
This month, WBEZ reported that Rauner’s deputy press secretary at the time recommended delaying public notice in 2015 and that a pattern emerged during later outbreaks in 2016 and 2017 of taking weeks or months to publicly confirm Legionnaires’ cases at the home.