Duckworth whistle-blowing hearing collides with campaign

A whistle-blower lawsuit dating back to U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth's tenure as head of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs is set for an initial hearing Tuesday in a trial expected to play out next year during her pursuit of a U.S. Senate seat.

The lawsuit stems from a 2009 complaint filed against Duckworth by two employees at the downstate Anna Veterans Home. They say Duckworth harassed them and caused them “emotional distress” after they reported ethics complaints against their boss.

Tuesday's court date in Union County is a pretrial hearing where attorneys could trade motions and talk with the judge about preparations for next year's trial.

Republicans have sought to highlight the trial during the Hoffman Estates Democrat's Senate bid, saying it reflects on her leadership. Duckworth's campaign says that the emphasis now, on a case that has lingered for years, is politically motivated.

Duckworth is vying to win a primary campaign against former Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp en route to a possible race with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk next year.

“Rep. Duckworth has continuously refused to explain her actions and it is our hope that the legal system will deliver what she has not: the truth about her actions and justice to the whistleblowers,” Kirk spokesman Kevin Artl said in a statement.

Multiple calls to the plaintiffs' attorney were not returned. And Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, which is representing Duckworth and the state in the case, isn't commenting publicly ahead of Tuesday's hearing.

The case dates back to 2007, when two employees at the veterans home in Anna made ethics complaints about their boss.

Afterward, one of the employees, Christine Butler, says she was fired by then-Department of Veterans' Affairs Secretary Duckworth for being “insubordinate.” Butler later was put on leave instead.

Butler's co-worker, Denise Goins, says Duckworth told her the same day: “If you do your job and keep your mouth shut and concentrate on job duties, you will keep your job.”

On Friday, Republicans released a 2007 email from Duckworth that includes her writing of Butler: “I screwed up in firing her since she actually is to be put on disciplinary leave first.”

Illinois Democratic Party senior adviser Matt McGrath said the GOP released that email as a “nakedly transparent political ploy” because Kirk had his own tough week. Republican fundraiser Ron Gidwitz last week told Crain's Chicago Business that Kirk should leave the race because he could cause his party “collateral damage” on the 2016 ballot. Gidwitz then retracted the statement.

“It's understandable that he (Kirk) and his political allies are desperately trying to change the subject,” McGrath said. “In this instance they're pinning their hopes on a willful misreading of a single element of a years-old lawsuit that already has been dismissed in full or in part three separate times.”

The case was dismissed out of federal court in 2009. It has lingered in Union County since 2009 until a judge this year set a trial date for 2016, timing that lines up with the already-heated race for U.S. Senate.

Kirk is seeking re-election in a Democratic-leaning state he won six years ago. The race could be one of the most highly watched in the country, with the VA lawsuit serving as ammunition for Republicans in the battle for control of the Senate.

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