Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration spent time researching the public health catastrophe in Flint, Mich., as he and his aides faced the first legal fallout from a fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at Illinois’ largest veterans’ home in downstate Quincy, state records show.
Months after 12 residents of the Illinois Veterans Home died of Legionnaires’, Rauner’s administration internally circulated news stories about the liability of government officials in Flint and how the Legionnaires’ crisis that killed a dozen residents in Michigan was met initially by “silence” from state and local officeholders.
Some of those same officials in Michigan currently face the threat of criminal prosecution. The Michigan health and welfare director who oversaw the Legionnaires’ crisis in Flint is on trial for involuntary manslaughter and misconduct for allegedly withholding information from the public about the water contamination.
No one in Illinois has been accused of criminal wrongdoing.
But Rauner’s office was involved in the decision-making that contributed to a six-day delay in informing residents, their families, and the public about a confirmed Legionnaires’ epidemic taking root at the Quincy veterans’ home in 2015. In subsequent outbreaks in 2016 and 2017, Rauner’s administration waited weeks and, in some cases, months before confirming Legionnaires’ cases there.
This month, Attorney General Lisa Madigan opened an investigation into the Rauner administration’s actions at Quincy, with a particular emphasis on whether the public was properly notified about Legionnaires’ at the facility.
The Rauner administration’s interest in Flint — and its national embodiment of government incompetence, neglect, and liability — occurred not long before the governor told the public in 2016 that his administration was “really on top of the situation” at Quincy. Today, Rauner’s aides downplay any notion the administration saw connections between Flint and Quincy, but some legal experts say the ties are undeniable.
“I think it’s difficult in a situation like this not to see parallels with what’s happened in Flint,” said Mark Totten, a Michigan State University law professor who investigated possible wrongdoing by state and local officials in Flint for the Genesee County prosecutor before the Michigan attorney general took over the probe.
“You have in Illinois, just like we had in Michigan, an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. There’s some delay in reporting the outbreak. There are people that die who … might have been saved if the outbreak was reported earlier. And the question becomes, ‘Why did they not report, and did they violate the law in not doing so?’” Totten said.
The Flint-related emails generated within the governor’s office were contained within a trove of about 50,000 records produced by the Rauner administration since June in response to a request by WBEZ for records related to Legionnaires’ disease at Quincy. The station has been investigating the Quincy outbreaks since last December.
In one email, Rauner himself appeared to be the recipient of research on Flint. One of his top policy aides produced a 15-point timeline of everything that had gone on in Flint, ending with a notation of how three state and local officials had to resign over mishandling the water crisis and Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, issued a public apology.
That Jan. 19, 2016, email — headlined “Michigan background for the boss” — appeared to go to Rauner. The policy aide sent the chronology to Rauner’s personal assistant, who responded that she had printed it out for the governor to read.
That research into Flint corresponded with the first recognition Rauner’s administration got that it could face legal fallout from the initial Quincy outbreak.
In December of 2015, a lawyer wrote to the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ top attorney to inform her that he represented four families that lost loved ones at the home and to ask if Rauner’s administration was interested in settling possible legal claims before the families sued the state, state records show.
“The department is interested in exploring an (sic) comprehensive resolution of these matters,” the veteran affairs lawyer, Trish McGill, responded on Jan. 6, 2016.
But that “resolution” never transpired, and now a dozen families have negligence lawsuits pending against Rauner’s administration for neglect associated with fatal Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the Quincy home in 2015 and 2017.
After the Flint timeline was produced for Rauner, more internal emails on the same subject moved between key aides to the governor in the months ahead.
On Feb. 23, 2016, Rauner’s former chief operating officer, Linda Lingle, forwarded a New York Times’ article about Flint to ex-Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries and state Public Health Director NIrav Shah. The report was headlined, “Legionnaires’ Outbreak in Flint was Met with Silence.”
On March 24, 2016, Lingle again circulated a newspaper article related to Flint. This one came from the Wall Street Journal and was topped with this dire headline: “Michigan Officials Responsible for Flint Water Crisis, Panel Finds.” She suggested to Shah that he obtain a copy of a task force report that implicated Michigan officials for mishandling the Flint crisis.
Shah complied, forwarding the 116-page report to Lingle and five top officials who reported to Rauner, including his past and present chiefs of staff, his former top lawyer and his former communications director, records show.
Rauner’s office offered only a brief response to a series of questions from WBEZ about why the administration had an interest in researching Flint, what the governor did with the Flint chronology he received, or whether his office has consulted with anyone in Snyder’s office in Michigan about the Legionnaires’ crises.
“The water crisis in Flint, Michigan was a national news story that appropriately caught the attention of governments — municipal, county and state — across the country,” Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh said. “We continue to monitor the news from Flint.”
Lingle and other current and former Rauner aides involved in the emails did not respond to queries from WBEZ.
A spokeswoman for Shah, the public health director, explained his agency’s interest in Flint as having largely to do with lead contamination in the city’s water system and made no direct connection to Quincy or Legionnaires’ disease.
“From the early days of the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, health agencies across the country, including the Illinois Department of Public Health, monitored it very closely,” Shah spokeswoman Emma Ciavarella said. “Because of the public health threat this crisis presented, it makes sense that these agencies needed to understand whether their communities could be at risk.
“IDPH monitored all aspects of this public health crisis and paid particular attention to the lead exposure because addressing high rates of childhood lead exposure in Illinois is a top priority for the agency,” she said.
But a key Democratic lawmaker who co-chaired hearings on the Quincy Legionnaires’ outbreaks said the Rauner administration’s research into Flint suggests to him that the governor and his staff were fearful that Quincy had potential to turn into Illinois’ version of Flint.
“That tells me they’re panicked, and that they know they did something wrong, and they’re trying to figure out the best way to cover their behinds,” said state Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park), chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Totten, the Michigan State University law professor, reviewed the Rauner administration’s Flint emails and said it is “unmistakably” clear to him that Illinois officials were deeply concerned about knowing about the missteps of Flint as the gravity of what happened in Quincy became clear.
“I suspect there are conversations going around all across the nation within state and municipal email exchanges about Flint. But I especially am not surprised it happened here because I think there are so many similarities between the Legionnaires’ outbreak in Quincy and what happened in Flint,” he said.
Attorney General Madigan has not elaborated on whether her investigation intends to delve into potential criminal wrongdoing in the Rauner administration. Nor has she identified specific potential targets. Rauner has derided her announcement as a political ploy.
But Totten said he believes the possibility of criminal liability does exist in Illinois based on his reading of state law and his awareness of details involving notification delays at Quincy.
“I think the scope of liability is potentially quite broad and … , again, depending on the facts and the particularly elements of the crime, could extend to anybody who had a role and perhaps failed to perform some duty and interfered with others performing their duties,” he said.
Totten said that while it’s not clear any criminal charges will arise from Madigan’s investigation, any credible investigation into the Quincy crisis should involve looking into potential involuntary manslaughter, official misconduct, reckless conduct, and neglect of a long-term care facility patient, all criminal statutes.
“Obviously, it’ll depend on the facts. What happened? Was there a violation of the law? Was there a violation of reporting responsibilities? But let’s assume there was … a responsibility to report, and it didn’t happen in time,” he said. “I think Illinois, honestly, has better laws on the books than Michigan does to hold public officials liable for these types of crimes.”