As Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford faced explosive sexual harassment allegations that threaten to upend his campaign for governor, the Chenoa Republican took to a Schaumburg Hyatt hotel Monday to forcefully rebut the claims.
Former treasurer's office employee Edmund Michalowski, 43, of Chicago filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging Rutherford forced him to do political work for Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney's campaign and made suggestive sexual advances that compromised his mental and physical health.
Rutherford shot back, saying the allegations were false and portraying them as a political maneuver in the weeks before an important election.
"This is a tough business. Illinois politics is hardball. People will say and do antyhing they want to," Rutherford said when asked about the allegations by fellow candidate Kirk Dillard in a GOP debate Monday night. "I'm telling you right now that those allegations are absolutely false."
The question came more than an hour into the GOP forum in Hoffman Estates and was the only mention of the scandal that had dominated Rutherford's day. When asked, Rutherford admonished Dillard and said the question -- which was phrased, "Are there any other allegations of sexual abuse coming?" -- was inappropriate.
Earlier in the day at a news conference to address the lawsuit, Rutherford also strongly denied the allegations.
"He did not report any of these incidents for these claims that are now two or three years old," Rutherford said.
"Participation in politics is not a factor for advancement in the treasurer's office," he said.
Michalowski's 15-page complaint lays out allegations that Rutherford invited him up to a hotel room at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
In another instance, the suit claims Rutherford -- through another employee -- requested that Michalowski wear a tank top to an event.
"The treasurer specifically asked that you wear a tank top," the text message read, according to the complaint. "Totally your decision if you want to ignore. I am just a messenger."
Rutherford, 58, said the quote was taken out of context and his office provided the rest of the conversation, indicating it was part of a discussion about the event's dress code.
"What about my toupee, should I bring my business casual one?" Michalowski sent in a text message before getting the tank-top reply.
Rutherford, who was not part of the text exchange, called the conversation "banter between two employees."
Rutherford also disputed an allegation said to have occurred during an April 2011 overnight retreat at Rutherford's Chenoa home, saying it never happened.
According to the complaint, Rutherford entered the bedroom where Michalowski was staying and grabbed his genital area. Michalowski alleged he pushed Rutherford away and later told Rutherford's chief of staff, but the aide told him he would have "job security," according to the complaint.
Rutherford says government travel records suggest Michalowski left Pontiac, not Chenoa, at 2 p.m. that day and arrived back in Chicago at 4 p.m.
"The alleger's own emails and own travel vouchers dispute what is in the lawsuit," Rutherford said.
State employees can go to the inspector general with claims of wrongdoing, but those investigations are kept secret until there's a finding. Rutherford said Michalowski had been through the department's ethics training and knew the avenues open to him.
No matter the legal result of the lawsuit, the allegations surfacing just more than a month before the March 18 primary election could spell trouble for Rutherford's bid for the GOP nomination for governor against Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington and state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale.
Rutherford had emerged as perhaps having the best shot to compete with Rauner's millions of dollars in campaign donations and ubiquitous TV ads.
Rutherford blamed Rauner for the attack.
"There is a lot of political motivation," Rutherford said. "Mr. Rauner has a lot to do with this." Rauner denied being involved.
The lawsuit names both the treasurer and his chief of staff, Kyle Ham, who also denied the accusations.
Michalowski started work in Rutherford's office in January 2011, when Rutherford was inaugurated as treasurer, according to the state comptroller's office.
He previously worked for the Illinois secretary of state's office, led by Democrat Jesse White, since 1999 and unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for Cook County judge in 2010.
Michalowski resigned his $99,000-a-year job at the treasurer's office last week and was set to start work Monday as a labor attorney in Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough's office.
Michalowski's start with Rutherford in 2011 wasn't his first contact with the state treasurer, according to campaign finance records.
Michalowski gave $300 to Rutherford in 1999 back when he was a state senator. Rutherford said he and Michalowski had been "friends" for 15 years before the accuser joining the treasurer's office.
A Facebook page for Michalowski that has since been removed showed a "like" for Rauner but not Rutherford.
It was Rutherford who first brought the allegations to light, holding a news conference to say Michalowski's attorney asked for $300,000 to keep the matter quiet.
That attorney, Christine Svenson, previously was paid $3,500 by the Rauner campaign, but she says it was for reviewing a lease and that the candidate has nothing to do with the claims.
Rutherford reasserted his blame on Rauner for the attacks.
"There is a lot of political motivation," Rutherford said. "Mr. Rauner has a lot to do with this."
As for Michalowski's motivation, Rutherford cited Michalowski's personal financial problems, citing public records that he said show Michalowski was in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings and was delinquent on bankruptcy payments. Rutherford also stated public records show Michalowski's home was foreclosed on last April.
• The Associated Press contributed to this story.