Email about veterans' home deaths sparks controversy in race for governor, comptroller

A controversial email connected to deaths at the Quincy Veterans' Home sparked a war of words and finger-pointing over what has become a hot button issue in both the gubernatorial and comptroller elections.

In an email dated December 13, 2017 to Governor Bruce Rauner's top staffers, Republican candidate for comptroller Darlene Senger wrote, "We can maybe tie this back to Duckworth."

The statement appears to refer to Senator Tammy Duckworth, who served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs from 2006 to 2009.

Senger was a top legislative aide to Rauner in 2017. The email was written while the Rauner administration faced a media firestorm over its handling of the Quincy case, which has seen 13 residents of the veteran's home die of Legionnaires ' disease since 2015. Several other residents were sickened in the outbreak.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza demanded a series of apologies after the email became public this week.

"Senator Duckworth deserves her respect and her gratitude, not continued false blame. Darlene Senger owes Tammy Duckworth an apology, and a big one at that," Mendoza said.

Senger's campaign said there was nothing malicious in the email.

"The simple, bipartisan fact is that for years, including the past Blagojevich and Quinn administrations, our veterans homes suffered from chronic underfunding that impacted the care our veterans received, along with the critical maintenance and modernization of the state's veterans facilities," the campaign said in a statement.

Senger's campaign also pointed to an interview Duckworth gave in 2007, during which Duckworth noted the Quincy home "needs work."

"There is no doubt that the lack of proper funding for veterans over the last decade has exacerbated the problems we currently face. If we choose to ignore the past, systemic failures to fund our veteran's programs, then we are destined to continue to face these challenges in the future and that was the point of my comment--we need to understand how and when these problems started in order to find long-term solutions," Senger said.

Mendoza also called out the Rauner administration over the lack of any response to the email.

"There wasn't a single member of the governor's leadership team who responded back saying something along the lines of 'that is so highly inappropriate, like stop right there,' Mendoza said.

The Rauner administration said there was no need to respond because Senger's statement was a single, random suggestion.

A spokesman said they have responded to the Quincy crisis by replacing the water filtration system and following all the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control.

"Today's statements were politically-driven, ill-informed... Our veterans deserve to be more than pawns in their political game," said Rachel Bold, a representative of the Rauner administration.

JB Pritzker, who joined Mendoza at her news conference and echoed her calls for an apology from Senger, also continued his criticism of Rauner's handling of the crisis.

"He should wake up in the morning and say how do I make this right, and whoever's fault it is, how do I make it right, but it's taken years now," Pritzker said of Rauner.

Senator Duckworth declined to comment. She previously criticized the Rauner administration for focusing on politics when veteran's health is the priority.

This week, a task force released a report calling for $245 million be spent on a new facility to replace the Quincy Veterans Home. Both Republicans and Democrats said they want to see a funding bill passed before the legislative session wraps up at the end of this month.
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