Updated 5 p.m.
Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has opened a criminal probe into how Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration handled deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the state-run Quincy veterans’ home, law-enforcement sources confirmed exclusively to WBEZ on Wednesday.
Madigan’s office contacted Adams County State’s Attorney Gary Farha to say it had plans to present a case to a criminal grand jury empaneled in the west-central Illinois community where the Illinois Veterans’ Home is based, the sources said.
Who within Rauner’s orbit Madigan may be targeting and what criminal laws may be at issue are unclear, but a spokeswoman for the four-term attorney general who is retiring in January said her office’s probe has been ongoing.
“We are investigating whether any laws were violated in the response to the risks of and outbreak of Legionella at the Quincy veterans’ home, where many people died,” Madigan spokeswoman Maura Possley said in a statement.
“There needs to be an investigation to determine if laws were violated and whether residents of the home, their families, veterans’ home staff, and the public were informed in a timely and appropriate manner,” she said.
Told of Madigan's announcement, Rauner's administration delivered a lengthy defense of its actions at Quincy.
“The administration is focused on maintaining quality care for our veterans,” Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh said in a statement. “The state has been transparent in this process, providing hundreds of thousands of pages of documents to the General Assembly and to the Auditor General at the General Assembly’s request and to the news media. The Departments of Veterans’ Affairs and Public Health have participated in dozens of hours of legislative public hearings. We provided a comprehensive public report to the General Assembly in April of 2018 which clearly outlines the administration's swift and comprehensive response to the outbreak. We have regularly communicated with residents, staff, family members, and the general public throughout the past three years.”
Possley’s confirmation of the investigation comes on the same day Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker are scheduled to appear in their second gubernatorial debate and less than five weeks ahead of the general election. She denied there is any political motivation to the probe.
Since 2015, the deaths of 14 residents of the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy have been tied to recurrent Legionnaires’ outbreaks on Rauner’s watch, and nearly 70 residents and staff have been sickened at the facility.
Last December, WBEZ launched an investigation into the state’s responses to outbreaks in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and new cases this year.
On Wednesday, the station carried a report outlining how Rauner’s administration engaged in a pattern of slow or incomplete public notification that dates back to the original crisis that killed 12 residents.
Then, state officials waited six days from when they knew a Legionnaires’ epidemic was at hand before notifying residents, their families, and the public. The result was residents getting sick and, in some cases, dying without their families understanding why.
Wednesday’s WBEZ report outlined how Rauner’s former deputy press secretary, now an official in President Trump’s communications office, directed that no public statement be made on Aug. 25, 2015 about the outbreak that then was four days old. Public notice wouldn’t come until two days later.
That disclosure represented the first time that evidence has been found in which Rauner’s office itself directed when the public should be notified about the 2015 outbreak.
Rauner's Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker, slammed Rauner after Madigan's announcement became public.
“After four years of outbreaks, 14 deaths, and nearly 70 cases of Legionnaires’ at the Quincy Veterans’ Home, Bruce Rauner’s administration is now the subject of a criminal investigation into their fatal mismanagement and cover-up,” Pritzker said. “While Rauner’s own office tried to keep the Legionnaires’ crisis under wraps — delaying notification to the public and selectively releasing state records to the media — veterans, their spouses, and staff at the home continued to get sick and die on this failed governor’s watch. Their families deserve justice, and Bruce Rauner must be held accountable.”
Madigan’s steps in this case are not precedent-setting.
In Michigan, that state’s health director Nick Lyon is facing involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with the deaths of two men linked to a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint. The core of that case focuses on whether Lyon’s office failed to properly alert the public about Legionnaires’ in the city’s water system.
Farha, the Adams County state’s attorney, said he was contacted by Madigan’s office on Tuesday to inform him of the investigation and to seek permission to present evidence to a grand jury in Adams County. He said a standing grand jury is scheduled to hear cases Thursday but that the attorney general’s office indicated that a case or cases would not be ready to present by then.
The next scheduled grand jury is scheduled Oct. 25, he said.
Farha, a Republican, said he would not be participating in any prosecution and that it would be lawyers from Madigan’s office appearing before a grand jury.
“It’s not my investigation. It’s not my case. I’m not going to be handling it. They made it clear that this was an investigation their office was conducting,” he told WBEZ.
“What they’re planning on doing is presenting some evidence. I don’t know names. I don’t know charges. I don’t know accusations. I do know it involves the veterans’ home,” he said.
Farha said he has not observed any criminal wrongdoing at the home or been presented with evidence of it.
Asked if he believed election-year dynamics may be at play, Farha responded, “One could wonder.”
Editor's note: A previous statement from Gov. Rauner's office misstated the time spent by state agencies at legislative hearings on the Legionnaires' crisis. Additionally, Lindsay Walters was a deputy press secretary in the Rauner administration.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.