CHICAGO – In his pitch to become Illinois governor, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford boasts of his cheap travel and lodging practices as part of a frugal conservatism that will serve taxpayers if he becomes the state’s next chief executive.
But a pattern of sharing hotel rooms and a Chicago studio apartment with a subordinate on his government staff has become an issue in the Republican’s primary campaign, raising questions about his adherence to common workplace management practices and the line between government duties and political campaigning.
Since taking office in 2011, Rutherford has shared a hotel room with his executive assistant, Joshua Lanning, at least ten nights while traveling on official business. The two also stayed together dozens of times in the Chicago apartment paid for with campaign funds.
The treasurer billed Illinois taxpayers for the hotels, but reimbursed the state last year for five nights after an internal review determined the travel should have been covered by campaign funds. In an Associated Press interview this month, Rutherford said he shared a room with Lanning only twice on state business, but public records and his office later confirmed it happened more often.
The shared-room issue has arisen at the same time Rutherford, 58, is defending himself against a federal lawsuit claiming he sexually harassed a different employee and forced him to do political work on government time.
Rutherford has strongly denied both allegations, blaming them on dirty politics in the four-way GOP primary among him, businessman Bruce Rauner and state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady. The treasurer accuses Rauner of being behind the lawsuit to sabotage his campaign, a charge Rauner dismisses as “ridiculous.”
Earlier this month, the Chicago Sun-Times documented how Rutherford and Lanning traveled together during several foreign trips funded by third parties. The Chicago Tribune reported this week that Rutherford and Lanning had stayed together at least 50 times at the Chicago apartment while campaigning, which Rutherford’s office later confirmed. The treasurer’s travel practices also were called into question in a recent AP report about his Facebook and Twitter accounts highlighting a mix of government work and political appearances on state-paid trips.
The treasurer defends the room-sharing as simply a way to save money, arguing businesses and even professional sports leagues do it. He insists he only does it during travel in expensive places and on campaign business.
“Our staffs on the campaign, they share rooms when we travel,” Rutherford told the AP. “Josh has been with me for years on our operation. There’s other businesses where (a) boss and others share.”
Lanning did not respond to several requests by the AP for comment. In a 2012 interview with his hometown paper, the Pontiac Daily Leader, he described his job as doing research for the treasurer, handling constituent requests and frequent travel. He has a young son and spends personal time working on Rutherford campaign activities, he told the paper. A Rutherford spokeswoman said the two men’s relationship is purely professional.
An AP review of Rutherford’s travel expenses showed that in a number of instances he billed taxpayers, at least initially, for the joint travel. During his interview with AP, the treasurer’s answers changed when asked how often he’d shared rooms with Lanning: first confirming the practice, then saying it never had been on state business, then citing two trips — to Washington D.C. and New York, where hotel rooms can cost several hundred dollars per night.
The AP’s review of documents showed there actually was a second state-paid trip to New York where Rutherford and Lanning shared a room. And Rutherford traveled three other times in 2011 and 2012 — to Peoria, Bloomingdale and Champaign/Danville — when he billed the state for a room shared with Lanning. Some of the trips initially were reported to help promote a state property-recovery program called I-Cash, but the internal review found the travels to be political in nature and the state was reimbursed.
Travel records show another joint stay in September 2011 at a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport that was booked for state business, though later determined to be political. The event was canceled, but Rutherford and Lanning still stayed in the room and it was billed to the state.
Treasurer’s office spokeswoman Mary Frances Bragiel said expense reviews are standard practice. Campaign spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said going back over spending showed Rutherford was diligent.
Rutherford rejects criticism that he blurs the lines between government and political activities. But political experts say sharing a room with a subordinate and confusion over billing the state for campaign events leave him open to scrutiny.
“I think it shows a lack of judgment, at the very least,” said Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “A supervisor should maintain distance from his or her subordinates. It’s just not good managerial practice to get too close to subordinates.”
Human resources experts say employees sharing rooms isn’t generally a good idea. The Society for Human Resource Management, in guidelines to human resources professionals, warns of consequences of room sharing, such as “lower employee morale, higher turnover and decreased productivity than the savings realized.”
Business experts say sharing with bosses could create an uneasy power dynamic.
“If your boss is saying, ‘we need to do this,’ it’s hard to say no,” said Stuart Bunderson, who teaches leadership development at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “This is bordering on something that creates an environment that, at a minimum, is uncomfortable.”
At a news conference this week, Rutherford defended the practice, saying supervisors and subordinates sharing rooms is something common to small business, and even in the National Hockey League and National Football League.
But NHL spokesman Frank Brown said that if players share rooms, it’s with other players, not coaches. Employees in the NFL’s league office stay in separate rooms when traveling, spokesman Greg Aiello said. Teams have their own travel policies, he said, but most if not all have players share rooms with each other on road trips.