Rutherford retaliation case opens; taxpayers pay the price
The whistleblower retaliation case against former Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford got underway in a Chicago courtroom on Tuesday, according to the media consulting firm consulting firm MediaPros 24/7.
While Rutherford could face civilian penalties, Illinois taxpayers are already paying the price for the bench trial. According to MediaPros 24/7, an analysis of public records shows that the state has spent nearly $520,000 on legal fees for Rutherford, who is also embroiled in a federal sexual harassment lawsuit.
Rutherford has a campaign fund in excess of $830,000, according to the media firm.
Rutherford's former chief of staff, Kyle Ham, is also on trial in the case brought by three former aides -- George Daglas, Ashvin Lad and Patrick Carlson -- who claim they were fired in retaliation after testifying that Rutherford sexually harassed another employee, Ed Michalowski.
Michalowski’s allegations came in the final months of Rutherford’s primary campaign in the 2014 gubernatorial race, which he lost.
The complaint, filed by attorney Dana Kurtz of Kurtz Law Offices, alleges that the events leading up to the complaint began during Rutherford’s primary campaign. Rutherford disclosed harassment allegations brought against him by Michalowski, then a treasury department employee, in January 2014, just three months prior to the primary vote. Michalowski filed a federal suit that February.
The treasurer's office asked Ron Braver & Associates to investigate Michalowski’s claims, and David Wells, executive inspector general for the Illinois State Treasurer, also launched an inquiry. According to the complaint, Daglas, Lad and Carlson were called in for interviews with Braver, and told by the treasury's Neil Olson, general counsel and chief ethics officer, to cooperate. Interviewed separately, each sustained Michalowski’s claims of sexual harassment and further expressed their belief that Rutherford was improperly using treasury resources and employees in his campaign. The complain also says Wells interviewed Lad, who provided the same information.
While the men were not given access to recordings of their interviews, the treasury's leadership, including Rutherford and Ham, did receive the results of the investigation, after which Daglas, Lad and Carlson reported hostile treatment, the complaint alleges. In May 2014, two months after Rutherford lost his primary bid, they were told that they were under investigation by the inspector general for timekeeping abuses. The plaintiffs allege that interviews related to the investigation, conducted by Wells, were hostile, and that Wells did not allow them to be recorded. They were all fired on July 2, 2014, for violating the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act and the treasury's rules of conduct.
Daglas, Lad and Carlson argue in the complaint that they were not given the results of the investigation prior to their removal and not allowed to respond to the report, which they say had numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations. They allege that they tried to appeal their termination to the executive ethics committee but were denied after the treasury shifted positions on the justification for their removal.
The complaint alleges that Ham boasted to another employee about their termination.
“We came guns blazing,” Ham said, according to the complaint. “You think they’ll shut up now?”
The complaint also alleges that the treasury has not consistently applied or enforced timekeeping rules, and no other employees were fired for timekeeping violations under Rutherford’s tenure.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages to compensate them for back pay, doubled, and interest on that back pay, as well as the reinstatement of their full fringe benefits, compensation for lost future wages, and emotional distress and punitive damages.
Kurtz is also representing Michalowski in his federal sexual harassment case, MediaPros 24/7 reports.