A top Illinois public health official delivered a searing indictment of how Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office handled fallout from the Legionnaires’ disease crisis at the Quincy veterans’ home, alleging that secrecy, indecision and “never-ending conference calls” created a “mess,” state records show.
Emails sent earlier this year by state Public Health Director Nirav Shah’s chief of staff offer some of the most damaging evidence yet that Rauner’s office itself was responsible for withholding key information from state lawmakers and the media about successive Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the facility.
“The [governor’s office] should have followed our advice and just release [sic] the documents with no redactions. Now we have another mess created by them to deal with,” Shah’s underling, Erik Rayman, wrote on April 4.
Rayman’s note to Shah and others within their agency came in response to a WBEZ story about how Rauner administration lawyers were aggressively censoring public documents related to Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the home, which are now linked to 14 deaths.
It was contained within an unprecedented 130,714-page trove of Legionnaires’-related documents that Rauner’s administration made available to WBEZ Friday afternoon, less than four days before Tuesday’s gubernatorial election. WBEZ began asking for the documents more than a year ago.
But unlike earlier batches, the emails WBEZ was able to review over the weekend were almost completely uncensored.
They flesh out the image of a governor's office repeatedly overruling its own top experts in order to control and constrict what information was made public about successive deadly Legionnaires' outbreaks.
The new documents, paired with WBEZ’s year-long investigation, evince a pattern of Rauner's cabinet heads pushing to disclose more information to an anxious Quincy public, only to acquiesce to the governor’s press team as it worked, at times, to keep bad news about the crisis out of the statewide limelight.
Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan last month disclosed her office has opened a criminal investigation into the Rauner administration’s handling of successive Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the Illinois Veterans Home in 2015, 2016 and 2017, with more cases this year. An aide said a particular focus of the probe was whether the state notified residents, their families, staff and the public about the threat in a “timely and appropriate manner.”
On Sunday evening, Rauner’s administration released a boilerplate statement in response to WBEZ’s request for comment on this story. But spokeswoman Elizabeth Tomev did not address any specific questions.
Top public health aide: Gov’s office is ‘the hurdle’
Rayman, the chief of staff in the Illinois Department of Public Health, was incensed with the governor’s office months before he fired off his April note, records show.
He wrote an earlier email to Shah on Feb. 15, 2018, when four new cases at the facility emerged and just as legislative hearings were ramping up. The exchange shows there were deeply-held divisions between aides to Rauner, who were focused on messaging, and the key public health authorities investigating the outbreaks.
“Further cases at [the facility] only complicate matters of openness given we have yet to turn over any documents to the joint legislative committee or respond fully to WBEZ’s FOIA requests,” Rayman wrote. “We need to figure out a way to force a decision by the [governor’s office]. They are the hurdle holding up our responses. Delays are only making things worse.”
Rayman wrote how Shah and others encouraged a full release of Legionnaires-related records involving Quincy last December, when WBEZ first launched its investigation, but was rebuffed.
“They should have made these decisions back in December,” Rayman said. “We’d be in a situation where legislators, the media and the public would have a better understanding of what IDPH did in a real-time setting.
“Instead, we are left with their never-ending conference calls with the same result: their indecision. The only time we get timely responses from the [governor’s office] is when Patty yells at us for creating timelines that she’d otherwise force us to redact without any legal basis,” Rayman said, referring to Rauner’s deputy chief of staff for communications, Patty Schuh. “We need to develop an internal strategy to get our story out.”
Later that morning, Shah responded to Rayman with an idea to figure out its own messaging by bypassing the governor’s office entirely.
“I completely concur, Erik,” Shah said. “Since the [governor’s office] hasn’t been proficient at telling the story through a well-thought comms strategy, we need to start doing that ourselves.”
A few minutes later, Shah wrote back again, outlining his own frustration at the state’s inability to stop Legionnaires’ cases at the home, despite adhering to all of the recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’ve spent time thinking about the path forward in the Quincy situation. The CDC appears to be stumped. They can’t explain how a facility with negative water testing results could still be having cases. If these are ‘true’ cases, and not those being picked up because of the rise in flu, then I believe we are at the point where relocation or outright closure is the best path.”
Shah’s note appears to mark the first time anyone in the governor’s orbit was breaking with standing Rauner administration policy that the 132-year-old Quincy facility should stay open.
“For years, we have been working through the CDC’s playbook. But now, it appears, we are out of plays. Despite our hopes to be able to reduce cases to near zero, there is something that our scientific understanding does not yet account for going on at [the veterans’ home],” he said.
The governor went so far as to stay at the home for a week in January to demonstrate it was safe and has made return visits.
Rauner aide: ‘Unclear on the need’ to publicize 2017 outbreak
The newly-released emails offer yet another example of the governor’s office limiting full public disclosure about new Legionnaires’ cases. Last month, WBEZ reported the governor’s office put the brakes on the first press release involving the fatal 2015 outbreak, despite contrary recommendations from his own health and veterans’ affairs officials. That contributed to a six-day delay in notifying the public about Legionnaires’ at the home.
In October 2017, Schuh and another aide in the governor’s communications office appeared to take charge in the decision not to issue a statewide press release about two new Legionnaires’ cases at the home -- the fourth and fifth ones of that year. None of the earlier cases that year had been publicized by the state by that point, and one of the new cases was a fatality: 88-year-old Valdemar “Roy” Dehn, a Korean Army veteran from west suburban Lisle.
On Oct. 16, 2017, Shah appears to go back and forth with Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries on whether to publicize the outbreak. Despite some PR concerns - Shah cautions a press release could “draw attention to the fact that we haven’t ‘solved’ this problem yet” - they agree to draft a public statement.
In an email early the next morning, Jeffries told her staff that they’re trying to “get in front of the media and questions that may arise.”
“As you know, there is always a tremendous amount of interest in this topic and we need to be transparent about it,” she wrote. It had been the third outbreak in as many years.
But just as Rauner’s cabinet was set to notify the public, his press office stepped in.
“Nicole and I are unclear on the need to get out in front,” wrote Schuh, the governor’s top spokeswoman, on Oct. 17, 2017, referring to another communications official in Rauner’s office, Nicole Wilson. “We recommend waiting for inquiry, unless we’re missing something.”
It was Schuh’s first day on the job.
But by this point, getting “out in front” of anything was hopeless.
Dehn had died Oct. 12, 2017, five days earlier.
Ultimately, Wilson informed Shah that information about the new cases in October would be given only to Quincy news outlets. That plan excluded the Chicago area, where Dehn’s family lives. Shah did not push back against the governor’s office, calling the approach a “solid strategy,” one email showed.
On Oct. 18, 2017, the day local press was notified about events from nearly a week earlier, Wilson informed the legislative liaisons in the governor’s office about the effort to keep disclosure limited to Quincy and included talking points to be delivered to any curious legislators. One point to highlight, she encouraged, was how the state was being transparent.
“The community is quite concerned about it and the buzz in the area is that the home always tries to cover these types of situations up,” Wilson wrote. “The Directors at Vets Affairs and IDPH want to get ahead of it to mitigate any potential backlash or claims of ‘non-transparency.’”
Public backlash: ‘What is being done to stop this??’
But if the administration was looking for credit for being fully forthcoming, it didn’t materialize.
Instead, a woman emailed the state demanding answers and stated her family had been harmed by the earlier 2015 outbreak.
“What is being done to stop this?? This should not be happening numerous times at the same facility. No other families should have to suffer like mine has from the first round of this,” she wrote. “Our Veterans and the employees that take care of them have the right to a safe facility. These [are] the people that have fought for our country they deserve to spend the rest of their days as safe and healthy as possible.”
More criticism came from inside the home after the facility’s administrator, Troy Culbertson, had sent out a campus-wide email on Oct. 18, 2017, identifying “a couple new cases” and saying “it is with full transparency that we share this information with you.”
A nurse responded to Culbertson a day later with a sharp retort.
“Just wanting to know why we weren’t told about it when these cases came up, and had to hear about them through the grapevine,” the nurse wrote. “But you are emailing us after it was on the news?”
By then, word of the new outbreak crept out statewide. On Oct. 20, one man called the Springfield office of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which oversees the facility. The man said his father died at the Quincy home the week before, and the Kankakee County coroner said it might have been Legionnaires’, records show.
The man asked whether his father was the dead veteran being written about in the news.
“He wanted to know how the media received this story,” the agency’s press liaison, Dave MacDonna, wrote to Jeffries, Culbertson and others about the call. “I told him that we gave the story to the media in an effort to be transparent and honest with the activities of the home.
“He told me that his father was cremated and wanted to know if there [were] any of his remains or fluids left?” MacDonna continued. “I told him that I did not know and referred him to call Troy Culbertson at the home.
“I offered him my condolences on the passing of his father,” he said.
Later email exchanges between Culbertson and MacDonna left it unclear whether the man’s death actually was related to Legionnaires’.
Ex-VA chief offers medical info to gov’s aides to rebut story
Other emails reviewed by WBEZ from the newly-released batch show repeated plans by top Rauner administration officials to push back against critical news stories.
In March of this year, WBEZ undertook an extensive comparison of identical Legionnaires’ documents obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act from the Adams County Health Department and the Rauner administration. The Adams County ones were largely readable; the ones from the state underwent extensive censoring by the governor’s office.
One poignant detail that came through in the Adams County batch involved criticism from the son of Eugene Miller, one of the 12 veterans who died from Legionnaires’ in 2015. The son, Timothy Miller, questioned why the state had not informed his family about the presence of Legionnaires’ at the home, which had been known for a week before his father died on Aug. 28, 2015.
The story contained the family’s account of their father’s death from the illness, and it was that narrative that was the subject of a long email to top officials in the governor’s office from Jeffries. She picked apart the family’s story.
“Team,” Jeffries wrote, “the following provides rebuttals for various points raised in the WBEZ article regarding Mr. Miller. I have a very detailed account of Mr. Miller’s medical treatment and can send upon request, copying the Gov GC office. The medical documentation clearly illustrates the role the family played in his treatment (or lack thereof).”
Her paragraph-by-paragraph dissection of the story was interspersed with details that Rauner administration lawyers censored, invoking an exemption under the state open-records law barring release of “information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or state law or rules and regulations implementing federal or state law.”
What legal authority Jeffries had to share such sensitive medical information with Rauner’s press team, his legislative liaison, his chief of staff, deputy governor and others on the email chain was not clear late Sunday.
WBEZ ultimately received none of Jeffries’ proposed “rebuttals.”
The state Public Health and Veterans’ Affairs departments did not answer questions about the new emails on Sunday.