CHICAGO (AP) — While a federal lawsuit against Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford has publicized salacious sexual harassment allegations, government watchdog groups say the lawsuit's claims of political corruption are just as worrisome as the Republican campaigns for governor.
Rutherford, who has strongly denied allegations leveled by a former employee, is locked in a four-way Republican primary. He spent Tuesday — the day after the lawsuit's filing — countering the claims in radio appearances. He maintained that the suit is a politically motivated ploy meant to hurt his campaign weeks ahead of the March 18 contest.
In the lawsuit, Edmund Michalowski, a former lawyer and director in Rutherford's office, alleges a "long-standing pattern" of being forced to engage in political activity while working for the state.
Even the hint of such political corruption could taint Rutherford ahead of the primary, and it raises troubling questions, experts say, especially in a state where two former governors — George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich — have gone to prison for corruption.
"It's the question or appearance and it really wears on the voters," said Doug O'Brien, who was chief aide to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., while he was an Illinois congressman. "The voters of Illinois are just so tired of having to put up with a lower standard for ethics among their elected officials."
According to the lawsuit, Rutherford allegedly demanded Michalowski organize petition drives and parades, solicit donations and constantly check his political email account while at work. Michalowski claims he was berated for not meeting fundraising goals and that employees active on Rutherford's campaign received raises and promotions.
Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, said the claims raise questions about a culture of bullying.
"If he runs the treasurer's office like that, is he going to be pushing around his (governor's office) staff into doing this that they are not supposed to?" he said. "That's a deeper question that should be center to his ability to be the next governor."
Political experts say the issue could hurt Rutherford with fundraising and organizing. State Sen. Kirk Dillard, one of his GOP primary rivals, asked Rutherford on Monday at a candidate forum about the potential for more allegations. Rutherford called the question "inappropriate." The other GOP candidates are Bruce Rauner and state Sen. Bill Brady.
Rutherford called a news conference hours after the lawsuit was filed.
"No treasurer's office employee in this administration has been pressured ... or otherwise coerced into performing any political activity," Rutherford said. "Employees such as Michalowski have volunteered to perform political activity on their own time and using their own resources."
While state law expressly prohibits political activity on the state's expense, the two activities can intertwine. Government employees often get their start on campaigns or choose to work for a particular elected official based on political ideology, experts say. It's not uncommon for government employees to schedule vacation around elections to go door-knocking, volunteer weekends to distribute yard signs or use a lunch break to check campaign emails.
However, the two activities should not be confused, better government groups say.
"It's so clearly unacceptable and against the law," said Susan Garrett, a former state lawmaker and chairwoman of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "You can't go back and forth between campaigns and doing state work and ask the taxpayers to cover your cost."
The issue has come up in high-profile corruption scandals before.
Ryan served 6½ years in federal prison for racketeering and fraud. But dozens of witnesses in the decade-long investigation that led to more than 60 convictions before nabbing him testified that when Ryan was secretary of state, staff members routinely did campaign work — like selling political fundraiser tickets — while receiving their taxpayer-financed state salaries.
It's also not an unusual allegation in other public offices.
The Office of Executive Inspector General — which covers Illinois commissions, public universities and dozens of state agencies excluding the treasurer's office — received eight complaints about "political work on state time" in the 2013 fiscal year.
In denying the allegations, Rutherford has claimed that rival candidate Rauner was behind the lawsuit, which Rauner has denied as "ridiculous." Rutherford has also pointed out Michalowski's financial problems. Public records show Michalowski and his wife — who are in the process of divorcing — filed for bankruptcy in November 2011. A judgment of foreclosure and sale was entered in October against Michalowski's Chicago condo.
However, Michalowki, who submitted a letter of resignation to Rutherford's office last week, said he's not motivated by money. He claimed that Rutherford began making unwanted sexual advances in 2011 shortly after taking office.
His attorney, Christine Svenson, said the claims are credible.
"(Rutherford) can say whatever he wants ...," she said. "My client came to me with issues concerning his employment at the treasurer's office. Those issues had been going for a long time."
Associated Press writer Kerry Lester contributed to this report from Springfield.
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