CHICAGO – The campaign for Illinois governor took a jarring turn Monday when a former state employee accused a Republican candidate, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, of sexually harassing him and regularly forcing him to do political work on state time – allegations Rutherford denied as "absolutely, totally political."
Ed Michalowski, a former lawyer and director in Rutherford's office, filed a federal lawsuit alleging Rutherford started making unwanted sexual advances toward him in April 2011, shortly after Michalowski began working in the office. He said the harassment continued for more than two years.
The lawsuit also claims Rutherford asked Michalowski to set up meetings with potential donors for campaign contributions and organize parades and petition drives while on government time.
At a news conference late Monday, Rutherford said the claims have no merit "whatsoever" and questioned their timing, coming just weeks before the four-way GOP primary. He said his office has documents and correspondence that refute the claims and that to his knowledge, there are no witnesses to the alleged incidents of harassment.
"I absolutely believe this thing smells of politics," Rutherford said.
Political analysts say the allegations could severely damage Rutherford's chances, particularly among the socially conservative voters who typically turn out to choose the Republican nominee. One political analyst called the claims "toxic."
But Rutherford said an independent investigation would clear his name. He repeated earlier accusations that a Republican gubernatorial rival, businessman Bruce Rauner, is behind the lawsuit in an attempt to undermine Rutherford's campaign in advance of the March 18 primary. Rauner has denied any involvement.
Michalowski submitted a letter of resignation to Rutherford's office last week.
The lawsuit names both the treasurer and his chief of staff, Kyle Ham. In it, Michalowski alleges that he attended an April 2011 overnight retreat at Rutherford's Chenoa home. He says Rutherford told him other staff members would be there but that no one else arrived.
The lawsuit alleges that Rutherford entered the guest bedroom where Michalowski was staying that night and grabbed his genital area. Michalowski says he pushed Rutherford away and later told Ham about the incident. Michalowski alleges Rutherford's chief of staff told him, "At least we have job security."
In a statement from Rutherford's office Monday, Ham "vehemently" denied Michalowski's account. He said no such report was made to him.
Rutherford also said travel vouchers that Michalowski submitted for reimbursement show he traveled to and from the retreat — which the treasurer said wasn't at his home — the same day and was back in Chicago by 4 p.m. But Michalowski's attorney, Christine Svenson, told The Associated Press late Monday that Rutherford asked her client to file inaccurate information on the reimbursement form.
Michalowski also claims Rutherford made unwanted sexual advances toward him in August 2011 in Springfield and during 2012 Republican National Convention in Florida.
The suit also claims Rutherford made Michalowski do work for his own campaign as well as for 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Rutherford was the Illinois chairman for the Romney campaign.
Rutherford, a former state lawmaker, was elected to the office in 2010. He's facing Rauner and state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard in the GOP primary to take on Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.
Rutherford said his office conducted an internal investigation into the allegations and they showed no merit. However, because he's treasurer, Rutherford said he was launching an outside investigation with independent attorneys and consultants and asked them to complete it "as expeditiously as possible."
Meanwhile, Rutherford claimed Michalowski's attorney was linked to Rauner's campaign and had solicited a $300,000 payout from Rutherford to "walk away and keep it under wraps."
Rauner has said the attorney was paid a one-time fee for a lease agreement and has called allegations he was orchestrating the lawsuit "ridiculous."
Michalowski has a history of financial troubles but told The Associated Press his motivation is neither financial nor political. He said he waited to file the claims until he had a new job and was able to quit the treasurer's office.
Public records show Michalowski and his wife — who are in the process of divorcing — filed for bankruptcy in November 2011, claiming assets of $295,000 and liabilities of $642,000. A judgment of foreclosure and sale was entered in October against Michalowski's Chicago condo.
Michalowski has been active in Democratic politics and worked for Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White's office for more than a decade. He described himself as personal friends with Rutherford and recently told the AP he joined the treasurer's office because he "liked the idea of expanding a working relationship with the other side (Republicans). ...Expanding my mind."
Political analysts, meanwhile, said the allegations could hurt Rutherford's ability to raise money during the critical final weeks before Election Day.
"Any kind of sexual harassment charge against a major political figure is toxic," said David Yepsen, director of Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. "Even if it's just an accusation, it will hurt him irreparably."
But Rutherford said he has seen a wave of new support and is carrying on with his campaign. ___ Associated Press reporters Sara Burnett in Chicago and John O'Connor in Springfield, Ill., contributed. Lester reported from Springfield, Ill.