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02.12.14

Sex, Threats and Taxpayer Cash: A GOP Pol’s Multilayered Scandal

Just weeks away from the Republican primary, an Illinois gubernatorial candidate is being accused of everything from sexual harassment to questionable spending on travel with a young aide.

The allegations are broad, salacious, and, at times, just plain gross. A lawsuit filed earlier this week accuses Illinois Treasurer and Gubernatorial hopeful Dan Rutherford of luring a former employee to his home, touching him inappropriately, and attempting both bribes and threats in response to rejection. And that’s just the beginning of a tangle of claims and counter-allegations that have turned yet another Illinois campaign into a turgid mess.

In the suit, Ed Michalowski alleges that Rutherford started making sexual advances towards him in 2011, not long after he joined the Illinois Treasurer’s office. Those advances which, he says, continued through the two-plus years he worked there as a lawyer and director. In addition to sexual harassment, Michalowski claims that Rutherford would pressure him to set up campaign events, a misuse of his time while he was being paid to work for the state.

Rutherford actually attempted to get ahead of Michalowski’s accusations, holding a last minute press conference on January 31 to deny potentially forthcoming “allegations of misconduct” from an unnamed employee before the lawsuit was even filed. He’s also trying to pin the scandal on Bruce Rauner, a businessman and his Republican rival in the gubernatorial race, suggesting that Rauner orchestrated the suit as a means of sabotaging Rutherford ahead of the March 18 primary election.

Rutherford says Michalowski—who is in the midst of a costly divorce—is working with an attorney who has ties to Rauner’s campaign. That attorney, Rutherford charges, asked him for $300,000 to “walk away and keep it under wraps.” (Rauner, for his part, has called Rutherford’s accusations “ridiculous.”)

Michalowski’s story is nothing short of salacious. Among the allegations outlined in the lawsuit are claims that Rutherford lured Michalowski to an overnight retreat at his home in 2011 under the premise that other staffers would be there only to discover that he and Rutherford were alone when he arrived. Still deciding to stay the night, for some reason, Michalowski claims that his boss approached him in the guest bedroom and grabbed his genitals, at which time he says he pushed Rutherford away.

The lawsuit details other occasions in which, according to Michalowski, Rutherford not only came onto him, but either attempted to bribe or threaten him when he refused his advances. On once occasion, according to Michalowski, Rutherford allegedly him away from a group of women with whom he was chatting at a bar in Springfield ahead of the Illinois State Fair and telling him, “If you go home with me, you can have anything you want in the office.” During the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Michalowski says that when he denied the treasurer’s request to accompany him to his hotel room, Rutherford became angry and said, “You just said no to the treasurer.”

On top of the sexual harassment claims are the accusations that Rutherford forced Michalowski to work on his gubernatorial campaign and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, for which Rutherford was the Illinois chairman.

When questioned, the candidate insisted the two roomed together has a harmless means of saving money. ‘We always double-bunk when we can. Totally as a cost-saving measure.’

As is often the case with political scandals, Michalowski’s accusations—whether they are true or not—do not exist in a vacuum. Ahead of Monday’s lawsuit, the Chicago Sun Times reported that in 2011 and 2012, Rutherford took three trips abroad, spending 15-days in China, nine in Israel, and eight days in North Korea (32 days total) travelling in his official capacity as Treasurer.

While a spokeswoman has clarified that the trips themselves were paid for by third parties (the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs, the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, and the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, respectively) Rutherford was, however, paid his taxpayer-sponsored salary during his time abroad, as was his executive assistant Josh Lanning. The Chicago Tribune—who’s also long been scrutinizing Rutherford’s spending— reveals that Lanning regularly shared a hotel room with the treasurer while travelling.

When questioned, Rutherford has insisted the two roomed together has a harmless means of saving money. “We double-bunk in the campaign, he said. “We always double-bunk when we can. Totally as a cost-saving measure.”

Photos posted on Rutherford’s Facebook page of himself and Lanning scuba diving in Israel and posing in front of the Western Wall have sparked questions about the nature of their relationship, yet Rutherford has repeatedly defended Lanning’s presence on his trips as work-related, as well as the room sharing, which human resources experts told the Tribune is a major no-no.

Rutherford held another press conference on Monday, reiterating his denial of the claims and stating that there will be both an initial review and external investigation conducted into Michalowski’s allegations. He also assured reporters that he has no intention of dropping out of the gubernatorial race. “I’m going to keep my head high, I’m going to continue on.”

More information is bound to come to light in the wake of Michalowski’s suit. And these allegations, particularly sensitive stuff for conservative voters, as they involve a middle aged man possibly putting the moves on a male staffer, could be potentially damning to his campaign.  Illinois voters, certainly no strangers to scandalous politicians, will have to carefully consider who and what to believe.