For the first time since taking office, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday visited a state-run veterans’ home where Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks have been tied to 14 deaths and vowed to break ground on a $245 million replacement facility by year’s end.
Pritzker’s appearance at the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy comes after he repeatedly hit ex-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner during last fall’s election for the “fatal mismanagement” of repeated outbreaks there. The home serves close to 400 veterans and their spouses, and the outlights have been the focus of a yearlong WBEZ investigation.
Ahead of his visit, Pritzker personally reached out to the son of one Legionnaires’ victim to inform him he was coming to Quincy. That’s something other families have said Rauner did not do during his time in office.
In an interview with WBEZ following his visit, the first-term Democratic governor said he is committed to seeing the massive re-build through to completion. He also reiterated his desire for a settlement with 12 families who sued the state after losing loved ones to Legionnaires’.
Below is an edited transcript of the governor’s interview with WBEZ.
Your predecessor, former Gov. Bruce Rauner, recommended a $245 million rebuild of the Quincy veterans home, parts of which date almost as far back as the Civil War. After your tour of the home today, are you committing to seeing this reconstruction plan through?
JB Pritzker: Well from the very beginning, I’ve been committed to rebuilding the Quincy veterans’ home. I think the slowness in which the prior administration reacted to the problems there was, frankly, something that I felt was a reason why the governor shouldn’t continue in office.
And since I’ve taken office, I’ve had a number of conversations to make sure that we’re moving expeditiously toward building the new buildings on campus and going to the federal government — as I already have — to have conversations about making sure we get the 65 percent of the dollars that are necessary that come from the federal government to bring those into Illinois and into the Quincy veterans’ home. I think we’re going to get all of that done.
There are 12 families who are suing the state government for neglect in the deaths of their loved ones living at the Quincy veterans’ home. These cases have been lingering for about three years now. You’ve already said those families need to be compensated. Will the state accept legal liability for these deaths?
Pritzker: I will say this: There’s no doubt that the loss of the veterans at the veterans’ home over the last several years could have been avoided and this is something I’ve spoken with family members about, the family members of those who were lost. Very important for me to stay in contact and communication with them to let them know for example that I was coming here today. So I’ve done that. The legal case is being handled by the attorney general’s office, and I think rather than comment on the case, I’ll just say that it’s important to me to make sure the families do in fact get compensated.
What is the state’s legal liability here?
Pritzker: As I’ve said, I think the families should be compensated. As to the amounts for each one, or how each case gets handled, I think there are some intricacies to it, and that’s something I’ll leave up to the attorneys and the attorney general’s office to make decisions about and work with those families and their lawyers about.
As far as we know, the attorney general’s office is still conducting a criminal investigation into the state’s handling of the outbreaks. Now that you’re in office and can get a behind-the-scenes look at what happened with state government, do you believe something criminal happened in the management of the outbreaks?
Pritzker: It’s impossible for me to say, frankly. I’m not doing the investigations. I know there has been a grand jury that was impaneled to look into whether there was criminal liability in the previous administration. I’m gonna leave that process to find its own end. I know that that’s being prosecuted so to speak as fully and effectively as it can be by the attorney general’s office.
You criticized former Gov. Bruce Rauner a lot during the campaign for what you called “fatal mismanagement” of these repeated, deadly Legionnaires’ outbreaks. How can you guarantee that your handling will be different?
Pritzker: Well, this is very important to me. I didn’t just talk about it during the campaign because it was a campaign. I talked about it during the campaign because it should bother everybody in the state of Illinois when our veterans are not being cared for properly.
And as you’ve seen throughout the rest of my 59 days in office, the promises that I made during the campaign are promises that I am keeping, whether it’s raising the minimum wage in the state, making sure that we have a fair tax system, gun dealer licensing, standing up for workers’ rights. Those are all things that I talked about during the campaign and it shouldn’t be any surprise to anybody — including the veterans’ home and making sure that we’re keeping those veterans safe — that I’m fulfilling on the promises that I made.