State Treasurer Dan Rutherford on Friday said he’s the target of politically motivated misconduct allegations leveled against him by an employee, but the worker’s attorney called the matter “serious and real.”
Neither Rutherford nor the attorney would describe the nature of the allegations or who made them. Rutherford, who is running for the Republican governor nomination, vehemently denied any misconduct and contended opponent Bruce Rauner was behind the claim because the treasurer’s office worker is being represented by an attorney who did a small amount of legal work for Rauner last year.
The Rauner campaign denied any involvement.
The twist in the Republican governor race unfolded as Rutherford has tried to establish himself as the leading alternative to Rauner, a wealthy Winnetka businessman who has put $3.25 million of his own money into the campaign and has had the TV airwaves to himself ahead of the March 18 primary.
Rutherford surfaced the issue at an unorthodox news conference, saying he wanted to directly address the misconduct allegations and comprehensively discuss why they were false. The treasurer then declined to do so, saying the matter is under investigation. Rutherford said an internal office investigation found the allegations had no merit.
Rutherford and Neil Olson, the chief legal counsel in the state treasurer's office, said no formal complaint against the treasurer had been filed. Olson said he was contacted last week by Christine Svenson, the employee’s lawyer.
Olson said that in a subsequent conversation, Svenson sought $300,000 on behalf of the employee to “walk away and keep it under wraps.”
Svenson did not address the issue of a monetary settlement in a statement she issued Friday evening. She denied her actions were politically motivated to help Rauner.
Svenson said before coming to her, the client first had initiated a claim against Rutherford with the inspector general for the treasurer’s office.
“My client came to me a couple of weeks ago with serious and real allegations concerning Mr. Rutherford,” Svenson said. “After investigating the evidence, we elected to contact Mr. Rutherford’s office directly.”
Svenson said she had been negotiating “on a good-faith basis for days until as recently as” Thursday with the general counsel and another attorney for the treasurer’s office. Svenson said “both expressed a strong interest in keeping the matter private, and also expressed an appreciation for our willingness to do so.”
“This morning, Mr. Rutherford chose to make this matter about politics — probably because the facts are so troubling,” Svenson said. “I have nothing against Dan Rutherford, and have no horse in the governor’s primary race.”
Rauner campaign aides said they were not behind the misconduct allegation. They said Svenson had been used to review and edit the lease for the campaign’s Chicago office and was paid a one-time fee of $3,500.
“Treasurer Rutherford should spend his time answering the serious claims made against him by a state employee, rather than trying to distract attention with false claims against us,” Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf said in a statement.
Rauner’s campaign also said Craig Burkhardt, who handled Rutherford’s paperwork to get on the primary ballot, had recommended Svenson to look at the campaign lease. Burkhardt, however, said he was not doing legal work for Rutherford’s campaign at the time of the recommendation.
But Rutherford maintained the connection between Svenson, Rauner and the misconduct complaint was orchestrated to try to upend his chances for the governor nomination at a critical time in the campaign as voters began to pay closer attention.
“You put those dots together, there’s no question in my mind what’s going on here. Someone tried to get $300,000 and is being represented by an attorney who’s on Bruce Rauner’s payroll,” Rutherford said.
Before Friday, Rutherford had sought to avoid direct criticism of Rauner in his campaign — unlike GOP contenders state Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale.
Rutherford said “no one, including Bruce Rauner, is going to destroy me.”
“The one thing I know, we’ve seen another person enter the race with millions and millions and millions of dollars who has specifically noted to say he’s going to destroy his opponents. Nice try. Rutherford is staying in this race. I’m going to turn this back on him.”
To support his claim, Rutherford cited a Springfield State Journal-Register column. But the column did not, in fact, quote Rauner saying he would “destroy” his foes — the remark was attributed to a political operative who is opposing Rauner.
Rutherford also said his office has hired a firm headed by an ex-IRS agent to conduct an outside investigation of the employee’s allegations. Ron Braver and Associates will be paid $250 an hour in taxpayer funds, a spokeswoman in the treasurer’s office said.