CHICAGO — In his fight to keep his U.S. Senate seat, Republican Mark Kirk has repeatedly criticized Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s service as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. His latest attacks come in two new campaign ads, which claim there was “shocking abuse” of veterans, manipulated wait lists and retaliation against “whistleblowers” under the Iraq War veteran’s watch.
But the ads leave out important context, including that two of three lawsuits against Duckworth by two employees leveling many of the complaints were thrown out of court, one judge dismissing the matter as “office backbiting.” The one report of abuse involved employees yelling at a veteran, not physical harm.
The race between Duckworth and Kirk could help determine whether Democrats retake control of the Senate, and Kirk is considered one of the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbents.
Here’s the story behind the ads:
Kirk’s commercials feature two women, Christine Butler and Denise Goins, who work at the Anna Veterans’ Home in Southern Illinois.
Duckworth was appointed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to head the state veterans agency in November 2006, and she served until February 2009. The Anna home was one of four she oversaw, among other programs.
The ads state that “News reports and official documents reveal shocking abuse of Illinois veterans under Duckworth’s watch,” and “Wait lists were manipulated. The result: six Illinois veterans died while waiting for care.”
They also claim “When whistleblowers came forward to report abuse Duckworth bullied and fired them” and “Tammy Duckworth is going to court.”
The claim about abuse refers to a single 2007 complaint, when Butler told Duckworth that the acting administrator of the Anna home, Patricia Simms, hired five new employees who hadn’t undergone a background check to care for a veteran even though the new workers had “awful” appearances and some staff said the people had “very bad backgrounds.”
She said two of the workers argued with each other and one called a contractor names. In the one report of abuse, Butler said a veteran who had been in the new workers’ care told a staff member “please don’t let her and him yell at me anymore.”
Simms told the new hire the next day that he was no longer allowed on the property, according to Butler’s complaint. Later, in 2015, the man was convicted of second-degree murder, court records show.
A state audit released in 2009 uncovered issues with wait lists at Anna between 2006 and 2008, during the time when Duckworth was the agency director. Simms, who was responsible for maintaining the lists, was dismissed in 2009 largely because of the problems. During Illinois Civil Service Commission proceedings, the attorney general’s office said six veterans who were passed over for beds later died.
There’s no evidence that Duckworth was aware of problems with wait lists prior to the audit; the report notes that auditors discussed concerns with administrators in May 2009 — three months after Duckworth left.
Illinois veterans’ homes are skilled nursing homes, not hospitals, so the situation differs from the federal VA scandal, where veterans died while waiting for doctor appointments and tests or treatment.
Duckworth says she fired Butler in 2007 because of insubordination. She said in a court affidavit that Butler became angry, “to the point of raising her voice with me and physically being in my face,” after Duckworth told her she’d investigated Butler’s complaints and that co-workers denied them.
Duckworth reversed the decision after learning she had to follow written disciplinary procedures. Butler was suspended instead.
The women argue Butler’s firing and disciplinary action against Goins were retaliation for filing complaints, a violation of state ethics laws.
Butler and Goins filed a federal lawsuit against Duckworth in 2009. A judge dismissed the case, saying federal court wasn’t the place to litigate “office backbiting or petty managers.” They filed another lawsuit in state court, but a judge threw out that case too.
They then sued in Union County court. In June, the attorney general’s office, representing Duckworth, announced it had reached a settlement. The state would pay $26,000 to cover court costs, with no admission of wrongdoing.
A month later the women said they never signed anything and didn’t agree with the settlement. Butler told the Associated Press she felt Duckworth was trying to tarnish the women’s reputations by continuing to tell people that their claims were false. By then, the women were coordinating with the Kirk campaign.
The Union County judge wants to talk with the parties Wednesday about the settlement. The meeting is scheduled to occur by phone, not in the courtroom.