CHICAGO — The latest kerfuffle in a hotly contested northwest suburban congressional race centers on a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by two state veterans affairs workers.
Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh brought up the issue during Tuesday night's raucous 8th District debate, saying Democratic foe Tammy Duckworth, who once led the state veterans agency, is being sued by two employees for wrongful termination.
Duckworth responded that's "not true," which led Walsh to accuse his opponent of lying.
A look at the lawsuit reveals it's not classified as a wrongful termination suit. The complaint is about allegations that Duckworth and a colleague violated the state's ethics act and inflicted intentional emotional distress. And the two workers still have their jobs.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is representing Duckworth, and has filed to have the case dismissed. The matter had already been tossed out of a federal court. A state court also dismissed the matter, but a judge allowed attorneys to update and re-file the suit, which is pending.
For her part, Duckworth notes that it is not uncommon for heads of state agencies to face these types of lawsuits. She dismissed the case as "generic" and accused Walsh of using the matter to "distract voters from the real issues."
The suit stems from Duckworth's time at the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, which she led from December 2006 until early 2009, when she left for a federal veterans affairs post under President Barack Obama.
In the suit, two workers at the Anna Veterans' Home in far southern Illinois claim they received poor evaluations and were targets of harassment after filing complaints against the facility's acting director, Patricia Simms, who is named as a defendant with Duckworth.
Christine Butler, who was responsible for budget matters, claims that Simms took over the facility in August 2006 and told other employees that she was going to put Butler "in her place" and that she wanted her "gone."
Butler also contended that Simms allowed nonresidents inside the home to pass out campaign literature and provide care for residents without being properly screened. Butler sent emails to higher-ups against Simms, but said there was retaliation when Simms listed her performance as "unacceptable" on an employee review. The ranking meant Butler was ineligible for various raises and bonus pay.
Denise Goins, who was a human resources secretary, complained that Simms improperly reassigned some of her job duties and forbade her from reporting problems to officials in Springfield. Goins also received an employee review, on which Duckworth signed off, listing her performance as "unacceptable."
Eventually, Duckworth traveled to Anna to try to settle the dispute by meeting with Butler, Goins and Simms. In the suit, Butler claims Duckworth fired her on the spot, saying she had been "insubordinate." A few days later, Butler said, Duckworth rescinded her termination and instead placed her on paid administrative leave.
Meanwhile, Goins said Duckworth told her in a meeting, "If you do your job and keep your mouth shut and concentrate on job duties, you will keep your job."
Duckworth declined to discuss specifics of the case Wednesday. Reached by phone, Simms denied any wrongdoing and said she and Duckworth were being targeted by disgruntled employees.
"Made-up stories go a long way," Simms said. "It's my word against theirs, and it's two against one. They wanted to get rid of me, and they eventually did."
Attorney Matthew Ferrell, who is representing Butler and Goins, said his clients simply wanted to make sure the veterans home was running properly but instead became victims. Ferrell said he eventually hopes to take Duckworth's deposition as the case moves forward.
Duckworth brought up that Walsh has been sued by both a former campaign manager, who said he was owed $20,000, and his ex-wife, who claimed Walsh owed more than $100,000 in overdue child support and interest. Both cases have been settled.
Walsh spokesman Justin Roth wrote in an email that "to compare Ms. Duckworth's abuse of power while in a taxpayer-paid government position, to Mr. Walsh's family issue that was privately resolved months ago, is a sign that Ms. Duckworth will say and do anything to deflect attention away from this case."