Christina Butler and Denise Goins called me together during lunch break Tuesday from their jobs at the one-story, 62-bed state veterans home in tiny Anna (pop. 4,442).
It looked like their long-running legal battle with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs — and its former director, the Iraq war vet, congresswoman and Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Tammy Duckworth — was over when officials announced a $26,000 settlement in the downstate case three months ago.
That should have short-circuited the most promising line of criticism for Duckworth’s opponent in the November election, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk.
Now, though, Butler and Goins both appear in a new Kirk campaign attack ad, and they say the settlement documents don’t reflect what they were told. So they haven’t signed the paperwork to end the case.
They’re looking forward to a conference call with the judge that’s scheduled for Oct. 5, according to the Union County court clerk’s office. Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office has filed a motion with the court to enforce the settlement announced in June.
“We’re not going to sign anything that states there was no wrongdoing,” says Goins, a human resources worker at the veterans home in Anna. “We’ve fought this for nine years.”
The two women expected more money from the settlement and are especially angry about comments Duckworth made at a campaign stop in July.
“They got not a dime, which sort of tells you that they have no case,” Duckworth said in a video obtained by the Kirk campaign. “This is what they do. They don’t tell the truth and they put it out there. If your job is to serve veterans and you’re not doing your job — yeah, I’m going to come after you, and you can go ahead and sue me all you want.”
Butler and Goins say they were punished for pointing out wrongdoing after Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed Duckworth to lead the veterans affairs agency. They are presented as “whistleblowers” in the new Kirk spot.
I’m not convinced this is much more than an unusually bitter workplace vendetta, agitated again by the passions of the political season. In dismissing the federal case filed by Butler and Goins in 2008, a judge wrote, “Plaintiffs are irked at the way they were treated by their supervisors. But this happens in every organization, public and private.”
Regardless of the merits of the Union County case that’s still pending, the high-profile dispute should not obscure other concerns about Duckworth’s record in state government.
Under her watch, the veterans home in Anna was the subject of a highly critical report from the state’s auditor general, who found problems with the waiting lists for admission.
Even greater problems were alleged in the civil-service case involving former Anna home administrator Patricia Simms (who also is a defendant in Butler and Goins’ ongoing lawsuit).
Although Duckworth signed employee reviews for Simms judging her work as “acceptable,” Simms was fired after Duckworth’s departure for a federal post in 2009.
In Simms’ civil-service case challenging her firing in 2010, officials said Simms was canned for failing to “properly maintain the list of veterans who are seeking admission to the veterans home in Anna.”
The attorney general’s office described several cases in which veterans sought to move into the Anna home but never appeared on any waiting list or were erroneously kept waiting too long. The problems prevented them from being admitted before they died.
Simms eventually resigned, promising to never again seek work with the department.
The alleged wait-list problems occurred while Duckworth headed the department.
In a statement Tuesday, the Duckworth campaign didn’t address the allegations against her one-time underling but said the candidate has dedicated her life since she was injured in combat “fighting for her fellow veterans, and that’s what she’ll continue to do.”
A double-amputee who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in July, Duckworth is the state’s most famous former soldier, her military service and sacrifice worthy of the highest praise.
But whether she did as well as possible by fellow veterans who turned to her department — that’s a separate issue she’s not yet fully addressed.