Rauner firing blanks in flap over hired gun in ballot challenge?

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Bruce Rauner’s spokesman says the Republican nominee for governor knew nothing about the unusual strong-arm tactics used by his allies in their failed effort to keep the Libertarian Party candidates from appearing on the November ballot.

The statement from Rauner’s campaign followed my column last week on the Republican deployment of armed private investigators to challenge the Libertarian slate’s nominating signature petitions.

“Bruce wants as many people engaged in the political process as possible,” Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf said in an e-mail. “Bruce has no knowledge of these alleged activities, and if they are true, he strongly denounces them. Bruce doesn’t agree with any form of voter intimidation.”

It’s easy to say you oppose voter intimidation and greater engagement in politics.

But did Rauner do all he could to deter those who were acting to further his interests from engaging in the sort of behavior he now repudiates?

Public records show there are strong ties between Rauner and those involved in the effort to knock the Libertarians off the ballot.

The charges of gun-toting private eyes doing political work surfaced at the Illinois State Board of Elections. Republicans sought to have the Libertarians tossed off the November ballot for allegedly lacking the 25,000 valid voter signatures required to run. The election board ruled Friday that the Libertarians had done enough to stay on the ballot.

A woman who was paid to circulate petitions for the Libertarians and a voter who signed one of the party’s petitions say private investigators were armed when they approached them, asking them to admit that the petitions were fraudulent.

The GOP’s end goal here – though not all of the means it used – was easily understandable. The conservative Libertarian candidate likely will siphon votes largely from Rauner in a race against Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

In the past 40 years, no Libertarian has won more than 2.09 percent of the total vote for governor. Still, the relatively few votes that go to a third party could prove significant if the race between Rauner and Quinn is close.

Rauner’s campaign tried to distance itself when I first tried to ask about the Libertarian ballot-access case last week. “I believe that is a state party issue,” said Schrimpf, the spokesman.

Illinois Republican Party officials readily confirmed hiring the lawyer for the petition challenge, John Fogarty, and they said it was Fogarty’s firm that paid Morrison Security of Alsip to help build a case against the Libertarian petitions.

Last week, the state GOP officials said it was routine for Morrison Security’s investigators to pack heat while on the job.

On Tuesday, though, the state party’s spokesman provided this “updated” statement: “We do not support the practice of any investigator wearing a firearm while verifying petition signatures. If even one person felt intimidated, that’s unacceptable.”

A closer look at the sordid affair shows it’s not so simple for the state party to take the fall here and for Rauner to disassociate himself for what happened. Consider that:

■ Fogarty’s law firm has been paid more than $53,000 to work for Rauner’s campaign and for the unsuccessful, Rauner-backed push to hold a referendum on term limits in state government, according to campaign-finance reports.

■ A notary for the effort to knock the Libertarians off the ballot, Morgan Kreitner, is a salaried employee of the Rauner campaign.

■ Rauner personally contributed $6,500 to the Palos Township Republican organization — which is led by Morrison Security owner Sean Morrison.

It’s not enough for Rauner to say he was blissfully unaware of what was being done on his behalf. Not when those efforts involved many people he knows well, people he has relied upon heavily in what he says is a campaign to clean up Illinois politics.

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