Women reject settlement in Duckworth workplace retaliation lawsuit

The day before congresswoman Tammy Duckworth is scheduled to deliver a major speech on the main stage at the Democratic National Convention, two women who filed a workplace retaliation suit against her have announced they're refusing to accept a settlement offer that seemed a done deal just weeks ago.

Now, a trial set to begin Aug. 15 in downstate Jonesboro could serve as an obstacle at an inopportune time for Duckworth as she enters the homestretch of her campaign to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk in a nationally watched race.

Plaintiffs Denise Goins and Christine Butler told the Daily Herald Wednesday they were insulted by the Duckworth campaign's June 24 response to the settlement, with deputy campaign manager Matt McGrath releasing a statement describing the suit as “a frivolous workplace case” that dragged on for more than eight years.

“Within an hour of leaving the courthouse, her campaign decided to swing us through the mud again,” Butler said. “So we emailed our attorney to let him know we want to proceed to trial.”

The women say they received no pressure from the Kirk campaign to reject the settlement offer.

“We are both nonpolitical people. When we initiated the very first formal complaint, we had no idea she had political aspirations,” Butler said. “We would have been happy to be done with it years ago.”

McGrath on Wednesday referred all comments to Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, which is representing Duckworth in the case.

Madigan spokeswoman Maura Possley said paperwork was being “finalized” after reaching a settlement agreement last month. But Goins and Butler say they met with their attorney Tuesday and refused to sign the paperwork.

The lawsuit stems from Duckworth's time leading the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, a post she was appointed to in 2006 by now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The case dates back to 2007, when Goins and Butler, two longtime employees of the downstate Anna Veterans Home, made ethics complaints about their boss.

Butler says she was fired by Duckworth for being “insubordinate.” Butler later was put on leave instead.

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.”

Duckworth denies treating the employees unfairly, while Kirk's campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee portray the lawsuit as a whistle-blower case. The case was also highlighted by former congressman Joe Walsh, Duckworth's opponent in the 2012 general election.

The original settlement offer was reported to be around $26,000, with the attorney general's office paying for the employees' attorney fees and other court costs. But Butler and Goins said the offer really was more like $40,000, with $21,000 of that sum paying for attorney's fees and another $9,000 provided to each plaintiff.

Treatment of veterans has been a major focus in the race between the Kirk and Duckworth, who both served in the military. Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot, lost both legs when she was shot down while flying in the Iraq War in 2004. Kirk, of Highland Park, is a former naval reservist.

The possibility of Duckworth testifying during the trial gives the Kirk campaign reason to further broadcast the case to voters.

Kirk's seat is one of a small number of targets across the country that Democrats are eyeing as they seek to take back the Senate majority in November.

Duckworth addressed the Illinois delegation at a breakfast at the convention Wednesday morning. remarking during her speech that “I'm running to help Mark Kirk retire.”

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