Rutherford denies sex harassment charges: ‘This thing smells of politics’
BY NATASHA KORECKI Political Reporter February 10, 2014 1:54PM
Ed Michalowski, right, has accused state Treasurer Dan Rutherford of sexual harassment in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.
Updated: February 13, 2014 7:19PM
In the biggest potential shake-up yet in the GOP primary race for governor, a former high-ranking state treasurer employee filed a federal lawsuit on Monday, leveling explosive sexual harassment allegations against Dan Rutherford.
The suit also accuses the treasurer of using his state office to further his political aspirations.
The lawsuit comes five weeks before the March 18 gubernatorial primary in which Rutherford was seen as the clear runner-up to frontrunner Winnetka venture capitalist Bruce Rauner.
The former employee, Ed Michalowski, accused Rutherford of making unwanted sexual advances against him, starting in 2011 and also alleged that Rutherford’s chief of staff did nothing when the incidents were reported.
Michalowski, 43, served as Rutherford’s director of community affairs and marketing. He resigned last week, telling the Sun-Times he felt intimidated by a news conference Rutherford held promising to combat the allegations while flanked by former federal agents.
Among Michalowski claims is that in 2011 Rutherford held an overnight office retreat at Rutherford’s Chenoa home, entered Michalowski’s bedroom and grabbed his genitals.
A calm but firm Rutherford held a news conference at the Schaumburg Hyatt and said he was taking the accusations head on, and laid out his rebuttal — producing documents that seemed to contradict the timeline of Michalowski’s claims.
Rutherford declared he was moving forward with his campaign, staunchly denying the accusations and speculating that Michalowski was motivated by a series of personal setbacks of his own.
“I stand right here and look you in the eye and tell you it’s wrong. It’s false,” he said. He later added: “I’m carrying on with my campaign.”
The scene was in stark contrast to a Jan. 31 news conference in which a visibly angered Rutherford announced that there were false allegations lodged against him but then wouldn’t detail the allegations.
On Monday, Rutherford produced a travel voucher showing that on April 2, 2011 Michalowski had returned at 2 p.m. to his home in Chicago, which seemed in contrast to his charge that Rutherford harassed him that night in Rutherford’s home.
He dismissed an allegation that he wanted Michalowski to wear a tank top as joking “banter” between workers in the office. Rutherford said it was “deliberately lifted out of context” and released the entirety of the text messages between Michalowski and the employee. The texts showed the tank top remark came from another employee in response to Michalowski joking if he should wear a toupee to the event.
Rutherford said a preliminary investigation found the charges baseless.
“There was no merit to it whatsoever,” Rutherford said.
As for the political accusations, Rutherford said no treasurer employees are required to do political work to get promotions
Rutherford has charged that Rauner was behind the charges, however, he was unable to provide proof beyond that Rauner’s campaign last year paid the Michalowski’s attorney, Christine Svenson, to review a lease.
“You look at the different actions that are taking place right now … I happen to be the guy who’s got the most money available, I’ve got the best organization available,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford said he firmly believed politics was behind the allegations because the primary is five weeks away, and early voting was underway.
“I believe I stand between Bruce Rauner and the nomination,” Rutherford said. “This thing smells of politics.”
For his part, Michalowski insisted to the Sun-Times he has no political motivations behind his allegations.
“I’ve never met Bruce Rauner,” Michalowski has told the Sun-Times. “I went to [Svenson] as an employment lawyer.”
The lawsuit goes on to detail other instances of alleged harassment, including incidents at a Springfield bar, during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., and at an office party.
In August of 2011, at D.H. Brown’s, a bar in Springfield, Michalowski alleges that Rutherford approached him and said: “If you go home with me you can have anything you want in the office.”
In another instance, the lawsuit alleges that Michalowski and Rutherford were attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August 2012 when Rutherford asked Michalowski to go up to his hotel room.
When Michalowski refused, Rutherford allegedly became angry and said: “You just said no to the treasurer,” according to the lawsuit.
In December 2013, Rutherford allegedly went over to Michalowski at an office party, rubbed his shoulders and said to him, “You need a full body massage.”
“That was creepy,” said another person who witnessed what happened, according to the lawsuit.
Kyle Ham, Rutherford’s chief of staff and Michalowski’s boss, is also accused in the suit of demanding Michalowski perform political activity and failing to investigate his harassment complaints. In a statement Rutherford released Monday, Ham denied receiving any complaints from Michalowski.
When Michalowski complained about being sexually harassed, he alleged in his suit that Ham responded that he, too, had been harassed by Rutherford and said, “At least we have job security.”
In a pre-emptive strike, Rutherford held a news conference on Jan. 31, but Monday was the first time the allegations were made in a legal venue and the first time that Michalowski’s name became public.
In a Monday interview with the Sun-Times, Christine Svenson said her client delayed reporting the allegations because he was embarrassed by them.
Svenson said Michalowski had been looking for a new job and when he found something, he approached her saying he had a harassment case against Rutherford. She said on Monday that Michalowski did not intend to go public. Instead, she said she engaged in private discussions with Rutherford’s lawyers and said she was interested in settling the matter.
“I never mentioned a lawsuit,” she said in the talks that began on Jan. 23.
She dismissed the travel voucher that Rutherford said contradicted Michalowski’s claim about staying overnight at Rutherford’s home.
“Rutherford told him the state day ended at 2 p.m. ‘put that down on your voucher’ because we don’t want to be charged for the whole day,” Svenson said. “He was also embarrassed to say on his form that he got back at midnight or 2 in the morning to say what happened to him. The guy was so humiliated by this.”
She said Michalowski was especially embarrassed because he’s a bigger individual, 6’2”, 220 pounds, and feared he would be ridiculed if he came forward.
Michalowski is an attorney, has had strong Democratic ties and once ran, unsuccessfully, for Cook County Circuit Court judge.
In a 2009 YouTube video made when he was running for judge, Michalowski cites his “breadth of experience” in and out of the practice of law. He said his first job out of college was with the City of Chicago as an assistant building commissioner. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White then hired him to work at the Department of Motor Vehicles for four years; he then went on to work as chief counsel and corporate counsel for the office.
“I would credit Mr. White as being my mentor,” Michalowski says on the video.
He is now working at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds — his first day was Monday. He is going through a divorce and filed for bankruptcy in 2010, which is ongoing, but has insisted to the Sun-Times that money was not motivating his allegations against Rutherford.
The lawsuit says Rutherford allegedly entered Michalowski’s bedroom in 2011 and grabbed his genital area. Michalowski “immediately forced him off of him” left the house and reported it to the chief of staff.
In the lawsuit, Michalowski alleges that Rutherford demanded that he go through his personal list of past clients and ask them to donate to Rutherford’s campaign fund.
Michalowski’s attorney said on Monday that her client kept some text messages as corroboration but concedes there were likely no witnesses to many of the alleged incidents.
State records show Michalowski was paid $97,232 in 2013 and $99,000 in 2012.
Svenson said on Monday that her client was not in a desperate financial situation and now has a salary in excess of six figures.
Rutherford, though, speculated Michalowski’s financial issues prompted him to file the complaint.
Rutherford said he and Michlalowski have “mutual friends,” and he suggested that Michalowski turned on him because he is going through bankruptcy, is delinquent in bankruptcy payments and has had his home foreclosed on and is going through
“I think there’s a lot pressure here,” the treasurer said.
Contributing: Maureen O’Donnell