CHICAGO — A former employee in Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford's office filed a federal lawsuit Monday claiming the Republican gubernatorial candidate made inappropriate sexual advances and regularly forced him to do political work on state time, allegations Rutherford has strongly denied.
Ed Michalowski, a former lawyer and director in Rutherford's office, alleges in the lawsuit that Rutherford's sexual advances began in April 2011, shortly after Michalowski began working in the office, and continued for more than two years. The lawsuit also claims Rutherford asked Michalowski to set up meetings with potential donors for campaign contributions and organize parades and petition drives while he was working for the state.
Rutherford has denied any wrongdoing and held an unusual, hastily arranged news conference Jan. 31 to announce that an unnamed employee had raised "allegations of misconduct" against him. Initially, Rutherford said he couldn't detail the allegations because they were a personnel matter, but he later confirmed they involved harassment and political coercion.
"I know the accusations are completely false," Rutherford told The Associated Press last week.
He said an independent investigation would clear his name and accused a Republican gubernatorial rival, businessman Bruce Rauner, of being behind the accusations in an attempt to undermine Rutherford's campaign with just weeks to go before the March 18 primary. Rauner has denied the allegation.
Michalowski submitted a letter of resignation to Rutherford's office last week. The lawsuit names both the treasurer and his chief of staff, Kyle Ham, who didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.
In the lawsuit, Michalowski alleges that he attended an April 2011 overnight retreat at Rutherford's Chenoa home. He says Rutherford told him other staff members would be there, but no one else arrived.
The lawsuit alleges that after Michalowski went to the guest bedroom that night, Rutherford entered the bedroom and grabbed his genital area. Michalowski says he pushed Rutherford away and later told Rutherford's chief of staff about the incident. Michalowski alleges the aide told him "at least we have job security."
The lawsuit states that Ham made a similar remark a few months later, after Michalowski told him about an incident at a Springfield bar prior to the Illinois State Fair. Michalowski alleges Rutherford approached him while Michalowski was talking to a group of women. He claims the treasurer grabbed his arm and said: "If you go home with me, you can have anything you want in the office."
The lawsuit also claims that during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Rutherford asked Michalowski to go back to his hotel room. When Michalowski said no Rutherford got angry and told him: "You just said no to the treasurer," the lawsuit states.
The suit also claims Rutherford made Michalowski do work for his own campaign as well as for 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Rutherford was the Illinois chairman for the Romney campaign.
Rutherford, a former state lawmaker, was elected to the office in 2010. He's among four candidates seeking the GOP nomination. The others are Rauner and state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard.
Rutherford said his office conducted an internal investigation into the allegations and they showed no merit. However, because he's treasurer, Rutherford said was launching an outside investigation with independent attorneys and consultants. Rutherford has said he will tell his side once the investigation is complete.
"What I have asked is, please do it as expeditiously as possible," Rutherford told AP last week. "I absolutely want this thing out there as soon as possible and as public as possible."
Meanwhile, Rutherford has focused on linking the matter to Rauner and questioning the timing of the employee's allegations. Rutherford claimed the employee's attorney was linked to Rauner's campaign and had solicited a $300,000 payout from Rutherford to "walk away and keep it under wraps."
Rauner has said the attorney was paid a one-time fee for a lease agreement called allegations he was orchestrating the lawsuit "ridiculous."
Michalowski has a history of financial troubles but told the AP his motivation is neither financial nor political. Public records show Michalowski and his wife — who are in the process of divorcing — filed for bankruptcy in November 2011, claiming assets of $295,000 and liabilities of $642,000. A judgment of foreclosure and sale was entered in October against Michalowski's Chicago condo.
Political analysts, meanwhile, said the allegations could greatly damage Rutherford's bid for the governor's office.
"Any kind of sexual harassment charge against a major political figure is toxic," said David Yepsen, director of Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. "Even if it's just an accusation, it will hurt him irreparably."
Rutherford has said voters instead should look at his 22-year record in public office without a single previous complaint against him.
Associated Press reporters Sara Burnett in Chicago and John O'Connor in Springfield, Ill. contributed. Lester reported from Springfield, Ill.