GOP gov hopeful Dan Rutherford spent 32 days overseas as treasurer
BY NATASHA KORECKI Political Reporter February 3, 2014 12:00AM
"Just about time to go explore the Red Sea." | Photo and caption from Dan Rutherford's Facebook page
Updated: March 4, 2014 6:05AM
In his three years as Illinois treasurer, Dan Rutherford has demonstrated a penchant for globe-trotting unlike any of his predecessors over the past quarter century.
In 2011 and 2012, the Republican gubernatorial hopeful spent a combined 32 days traveling overseas in his capacity as Illinois treasurer, including a 15-day trip to China; a nine-day trip to Israel; and an eight-day trip to Korea.
He is the first Illinois treasurer in at least 24 years to accept third-party funded travel overseas in his official capacity.
Rutherford, who is in a four-way race for the GOP primary nod for governor, took the trips for “educational purposes,” according to his office. He defended them as appropriate.
On Friday, Rutherford shook up the primary contest by holding a sudden news conference, announcing that an employee in his office had lodged an allegation that Rutherford claimed was concocted at the hands of one of his opponents, Bruce Rauner.
Rutherford would not describe the nature of the allegations but he claimed that the employee’s attorney asked for $300,000 to settle the matter. The Chicago Sun-Times reported on Friday that a treasurer’s office employee is accusing Rutherford of harassment. Christine Svenson, the attorney representing that employee, was once paid $3,500 to review a lease for the Rauner campaign. The campaign denied any involvement and accused Rutherford of trying to distract from the issue.
In response to a Freedom of Information request from the Sun-Times, Rutherford’s office disclosed details of the trips but emphasized that no taxpayer money was used to pay the cost of airfare, meals or lodging.
With the exception of Rutherford paying for his own airfare to China, the trips were underwritten by third-party entities.
“Yes, the treasurer has traveled overseas,” said treasurer spokeswoman Mary Frances Bragiel. “It’s been done for educational purposes, when he went as a guest to Israel, Korea and to China. No taxpayer dollars have ever been used.”
The Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs paid for Rutherford’s trip to China. The Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago paid for the trip to Israel, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea, paid for Rutherford’s trip to Korea.
During each trip, Rutherford received his taxpayer-funded salary, as did his executive assistant, Josh Lanning. Lanning often travels with the treasurer, including on a personal excursion to Australia in 2011, which Rutherford has described as a “few weeks” in length in June of that year.
Fewer than two months later, Rutherford was in flight again, traveling to China, where he and his executive assistant spent 15 days.
In an interview with the Sun-Times, Rutherford defended his travel, saying for instance that the trip to China served as a gesture to the nation because he was with the Illinois Department of Commerce in the 1980s when it opened the first trade office in China.
“There was a lot of symbolism for the Chinese to have the guy who helped open the first trade office in China,” return now as an elected official from Illinois, Rutherford argued.
He added that state lawmakers also were on that trip.
“Senators and reps were on this trip; they do it every year,” Rutherford said.
When asked if he believed that, given Illinois’ struggling economic state, his time might better be served in Illinois than abroad, Rutherford responded: “Doing what? I’m in constant contact with my office” when overseas, Rutherford said. “So no, there was nothing at all that faulted in the treasurer’s office because I was overseas.”
Rutherford emphasized that “today’s technology” makes it easy to work remotely and that Lanning was there, in part, as a “traveling assistant” and to make sure he stayed in contact with the treasurer’s office.
“Most constitutional officers that are invited by another country, they have staffing that goes with them. Josh travels with the treasurer a lot, day in, day out,” Bragiel said. “He just works alongside the treasurer. He is an executive assistant to the treasurer and helps out with the day-to-day responsibilities with Treasurer Rutherford. I don’t think it’s unusual; most constitutional officers have staff with them.”
Photos on Rutherford’s Facebook page show the treasurer diving in the Red Sea, posing with Lanning next to the Wailing Wall in Israel as well as trekking through remote regions of the nation.
Asked if he worried that the trips could be confused as an excuse for a vacation, Rutherford was adamant in saying the trips served an educational purpose.
When pressed about photos of his scuba diving in Israel, Rutherford said he took two or three days of “personal time” to do some sight-seeing, including diving in the Red Sea. He said he made it clear to others that he was taking that time and paid for that time out of his own pocket.
According to the Illinois Constitution, the treasurer is responsible “for the safekeeping and investment of monies and securities deposited with him, and for their disbursement upon order of the Comptroller.”
Republican Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who served three four-year terms as treasurer, never traveled overseas, according to her spokesman, Brad Hahn. Hahn added that Topinka has not traveled overseas in her current capacity as comptroller either.
Before Topinka, Gov. Pat Quinn served one term as treasurer, elected in 1990.
When asked whether he took international trips while he was treasurer, the answer was “no.”
“He didn’t have a passport at the time,” Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said.
As governor, Quinn has traveled to numerous countries around the world including China, Canada, Mexico and Brazil, his staff said.
“The Governor typically pays his own way on these missions and covers his own expenses with campaign funds. DCEO’s Office of Trade and Investment trade mission budget covers any associated trade mission-related costs,” his office said. “With the exception of Israel (an educational mission arranged by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago) and Brussels (an economic mission to promote Illinois which was covered by the NATO committee) — third party organizations typically don’t cover the Governor’s travel.”
Rutherford said his predecessors likely do not have the same kind of international business background as he does. Rutherford said he was the international vice president for ServiceMaster before he retired in 2010 after 25 years.
Rutherford’s immediate predecessor, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, who served in the office from 2006-2010, said he did not travel overseas except when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., invited him as part of a larger delegation with a focus on a then-tense political situation in Cyprus.
Giannoulias, who joined Durbin for a portion of the trip, said he paid his own way, however, and as treasurer would not have accepted a third-party offer to bankroll it.
“I thought it was my responsibility to pay for a trip. I felt responsible. I thought it would look sketchy if my political account paid for it, and absolutely, it wasn’t worth the state money,” he said in an interview with the Sun-Times. Giannoulias said he never accepted third-party offers for trips during his four-year term as treasurer.
It’s difficult to show that such trips would benefit the state, he said. “It’s one thing to go to St. Louis or Minnesota or New York and have a group talk to you about something,” he said. “But to go overseas is probably much.”
Giannoulias said his office invested in Israeli bonds under his regime, but “I didn’t feel the need to go to Israel to make that investment.”
Quinn has traveled abroad, but unlike the treasurer, the governor of Illinois is tasked with bringing new businesses and investment to the state.
Quinn’s office described the governor’s travel as targeted trade trips that generally last two or three days. The longest, they said was a five-day trip to China that was in tandem with an additional three-day trip to Japan for a total of eight days.
Rutherford’s shortest international trip was eight days, his longest 15.
Rutherford did not initially disclose the China trip as a gift on his state economic disclosure form in 2012, but he amended it weeks later, adding the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs as well as from Cardoza School of Law in New York City, state records show. In his 2013 ethics disclosure, Rutherford noted gifts in 2012 related to his trips to Korea and Israel each were in excess of $500.
In a written response, Treasurer’s Office General Counsel Neil Olson noted that no taxpayer money was used for the personal trip to Australia.
“No expense reports were submitted by any Treasurer’s Office employee in connection with a trip to Australia during this period,” Olson wrote in a FOIA response to the Sun-Times. “Treasurer Rutherford made a personal trip to visit the Treasurer’s nephew, who is studying abroad in Australia. At the same time, Mr. Lanning also visited the Treasurer’s nephew, who is a personal friend.”
Lanning worked on Rutherford’s campaign for treasurer before landing the position as his executive assistant. Lanning was paid $50,000 in 2012 and $58,750 in 2013.
Lanning was not on work time but on “benefit time,” during the Australia trip, Olson said. Olson explained that as time given to newly hired employees who were allowed to transfer in previously earned vacation, sick or comp time on state time.
Rutherford in the past has come under fire for travel within Illinois to promote the I-Cash program, which operates out of his office and returns property to taxpayers.
Democrat State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, who is running for state treasurer in the March 18 primary, criticized Rutherford’s crisscrossing the state to promote that program, questioning whether it would be better to use the Internet to do it.
“I think you’ve seen a treasurer using his office to promote himself more than watching, keeping his eyes on the ball,” Frerichs said as he launched his campaign.
Rutherford’s office said the program has grown exponentially because of the treasurer’s promotion. Travel vouchers obtained by the Sun-Times show that Rutherford traveled extensively through Illinois to personally promote I-Cash program. The vouchers show that Rutherford stayed at modest hotels for the most part, including Red Roof Inns.
The office said two taxpayer-funded trips — on March 25-27, 2011, to Washington, D.C., and Sept. 15, 2011 to New York — are examples of Rutherford being so cognizant of travel expenses he shared hotel rooms with Lanning.
“As you know, anytime you go to New York or D.C., hotel rooms are outrageous,” said Kyle Ham, Rutherford’s chief of staff. “So decisions were deliberately made for Dan and his executive assistant, Josh, to double occupy.”
Rutherford, a longtime lawmaker from Downstate Chenoa before being elected treasurer, has boasted of considerable savings — shaving a total of 10 percent from the operating budget in three years — since he has taken the helm as treasurer. Rutherford announced last week that his office is cutting general revenue funding to 1999 levels.
His office also boasted that the Unclaimed Property and College Savings Divisions “each posted substantial gains” since Rutherford took office in 2011.
“The amount of unclaimed cash and other assets returned has increased 69 percent, and the number of claims paid is up 55 percent, compared to 2010,” the office said. It noted that in 2013 alone, the Unclaimed Property Division returned more than $139 million in assets and paid more than 70,000 claims.
Rutherford called that evidence that his work has not suffered because of any time out of the country.
“If you look at the performance in Illinois, it’s been exemplary,” Rutherford said.
David Morrison, of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said there is some value in ambassadorship from a constitutional officer traveling abroad and representing Illinois, particularly on shorter trips. Morrison said when a third party is funding the travel and the trip is lengthier, it’s legitimate to raise questions about the recipient’s motives as well as the beneficiary’s motives in taking the trip.
“So at that point you do have to wonder, what is the real reason for this trip?” Morrison said, referring to Rutherford taking personal time while in Israel.
“Is it to go for business reasons, or is it to go for a personal day — and instead of being in Pontiac or Springfield for your personal day, you’re in the Red Sea with a scuba tank on your back?”