State Treasurer Dan Rutherford strode confidently into the downtown hotel meeting room where he held a news conference Friday morning, smiling at reporters like he had come to announce an endorsement, unveil a policy initiative or share some other ostensibly positive news in his bid for Republican nomination for governor.
What followed was anything but a routine campaign event.
In a GOP primary race that has shaped up so far as gajillionaire Bruce Rauner and the three, relatively poor dwarfs, Rutherford certainly made sure he would stand out among the rest of the field.
The bizarre way his announcement unfolded, though, may just have created more questions than it answered and possibly failed to push his campaign any closer to the nomination than wherever he stood when Friday dawned.
Rutherford began by telling reporters, “I want to have a conversation with you about some activity that’s come about.”
Let’s see how simply we can explain these activities, given the scant details of what Rutherford he says happened to him:
According to the candidate, a lawyer for an employee in the state treasurer’s office came forward a week and a half ago with allegations against him.
Rutherford would not say what the unnamed employee is alleging, but he said the employee’s lawyer demanded $300,000 so her client would not go public with the complaints.
The treasurer said he had launched an investigation into the allegations, which he says are false.
But Rutherford saved his most impassioned remarks at Friday’s news conference for Rauner, whom he blames for this issue with the employee.
All Rutherford could offer as proof was that Rauner’s campaign paid $3,500 in July to the lawyer for Rutherford’s accuser.
If that’s enough to show Rutherford isn’t acting paranoid — and few believe there are any coincidences in Illinois politics — it was far from enough to force a confession from Rauner.
Rauner aides and the lawyer say the payment to her was for the very routine work of reviewing the campaign’s office lease. They denied colluding against Rutherford.
While some campaign veterans said the fee for the office-lease review struck them as suspiciously high, lawyer Christine Svenson later Friday issued a statement saying she had been negotiating amiably on the accuser’s behalf with two lawyers for Rutherford.
“Both expressed a strong interest in keeping the matter private and also expressed an appreciation for our willingness to do so,” she said.
So what drove Rutherford to invite the media to his odd announcement Friday?
“It’s weird,” says a consultant who has worked for Republicans and who asked not to be identified because the story is so, well, weird and baffling.
“My guess is Dan is smart enough to know there was a train coming and he had the sense to get in front of it before he got rolled over,” the consultant added. “He wanted to discredit [his accuser’s story] before anybody has a chance to credit it.”
When Rutherford fielded questions from reporters after reading an announcement Friday, as often as not it was Neil Olsen, general counsel for the treasurer’s office, who stepped in front of the candidate and spoke into the microphone. For most questions, Olsen claimed Rutherford couldn’t legally reply.
Also flanking Rutherford at the podium was a former FBI agent named Anthony D’Angelo. The last time he surfaced in news stories, about a year ago, it was to defend Chicago businessman Richard Simon.
Then, as controversy swirled around a city janitorial deal that Simon’s company had won, D’Angelo vouched for a Simon employee who had been convicted in a federal racketeering case in which the other defendants included mob boss Anthony “Big Tuna” Accardo.
D’Angelo said Friday he continues to work for Simon’s United Service Companies, among other clients, now including Rutherford.
After the news conference, Rutherford campaign spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said D’Angelo was “hired as an adviser to the treasurer and helped him select a third party to do the independent investigation” into the charges against Rutherford.
Under normal circumstances, it seems unlikely that an independent probe into a state employee’s allegations against a statewide officeholder would proceed rapidly. Surely not fast enough to be completed between now and the March 18 primary.
Normally, you’d also expect a statewide officeholder to refuse to even confirm that there’s any investigation unless the probe has at least concluded.
Rutherford obviously did exactly that Friday, even as he piously and repeatedly declined to characterize the allegations in any way or name his accuser.
It may be that the allegations against Rutherford would not have surfaced now if not for the upcoming election and the treasurer’s bid to move up.
By the same token, there doesn’t seem to be anything normal about the way Rutherford has handled the matter yet, and it looks like the next seven weeks of the Republican primary race could be outside of the norm for even this state.