Sitting off a narrow two-lane road not far from the Trail of Tears State Forest in far southern Illinois, there's little to suggest the Anna Veterans' Home would become a recurring focal point in one of the nation's most hotly contested U.S. Senate races.
But what began as a seemingly standard dispute between management and two employees at the mostly unknown state facility nearly a decade ago has spiraled into a messy lawsuit that Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is trying to leverage against Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
Kirk is running TV ads alleging Duckworth "fired and threatened" whistleblowers to cover up abuse of veterans at the facility when she was head of the state's veterans affairs agency. Another spot contends wait lists were improperly handled under Duckworth's oversight and that "six Illinois veterans died while waiting for care."
"Tammy Duckworth is a war hero," an announcer says, "but she's been a terrible public servant."
Duckworth dismisses the matter as a nuisance lawsuit and argues she simply was going after people who weren't doing their jobs.
"You can go ahead and try to sue me all you want," Duckworth recently told a group of supporters. "But I am going to hold you accountable, especially if you're a government employee."
"If you are exploiting veterans, I am your worst nightmare," she added.
For voters, the details of what happened in Anna and how Duckworth responded go far beyond 30-second campaign commercials and sound-bite responses.
During the long legal battle, an email surfaced in which Duckworth admits she "screwed up" in trying to fire one of the employees suing her, though Duckworth's concern in the message isn't that the worker didn't deserve it, it's that she didn't follow the correct procedures.
What's also true is that the two employees are still working at the Anna home, the lawsuit was twice dismissed and was about to be settled this summer for what amounted to legal fees and no admission of wrongdoing when the duo balked. Shortly after, they showed up in Kirk's TV ads, making them high-profile figures in his campaign.
Instability in Anna
The situation began, court records show, a few months before Duckworth even took over as head of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.
In August 2006, longtime state employee Patricia Simms was named acting director of the Anna Veterans' Home. In mid-November, Christine Butler, who worked on budget issues, returned from medical leave. On the second day back, Butler said Simms "began yelling at her that she was in charge and that changes in policy had been made in her absence," according to the lawsuit.
Two weeks later, Butler and human resources secretary Denise Goins claimed they saw Simms "reading a personal notebook belonging to" a human resources assistant at the home. They told the assistant, who reported it up the chain to agency Deputy Director Christi Rios. When word got back to Simms, she screamed at Butler and Goins, according to the suit.
Butler also said Simms improperly accused her of being responsible for a missing $3,000 Medicare check. By the end of the year, Butler and Goins both wrote letters to the state VA administration raising questions about Simms' leadership, according to the suit.
The two women said Simms retaliated by giving them unfavorable performance evaluations. In April 2007, Butler and Goins had emailed complaints about Simms directly to both Rios and Duckworth, who by then had been named the agency's director by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. By April 30, Butler sent a written complaint to the office of the executive inspector general about what she said was a pattern of harassment and abuse of authority by Simms.
A few days later, Duckworth decided to visit the Anna home. When Butler got word, she emailed Duckworth asking for a one-on-one meeting, according to the suit.
On May 3, Duckworth visited the Anna home. In a private meeting with Butler, Duckworth fired her, then publicly announced it to the staff, the suit states. Duckworth then met with Goins and said if she wanted to keep her job, "keep your mouth shut and do the job the way you are supposed" to, according to Goins' deposition.
But Duckworth discovered she didn't have the authority to summarily fire Butler because Butler's job provided her with legal protections. The next day, she wrote an email to Simms and others saying she needed documentation for the Butler case "to justify my decision to fire her.
"I screwed up in firing her since she actually is to be put on disciplinary lleave (sic) first. Our next step with CMS (the state department of Central Management Services) is to explain why we needed to terminate her employment."
Later, Duckworth officially rescinded the firing and changed Butler's status to paid administrative leave.
Court papers show Duckworth later offered a reason for the quick firing attempt.
"I am sure my military background factored into my dismay that a subordinate could be so rude and unprofessional with a department director. I was so taken aback with Butler's demeanor that I regarded it as rank insubordination, and, as a result, I told her during that meeting that she was discharged from employment with the department," Duckworth said in a November 2015 affidavit.
In an interview last week, Duckworth blamed much of the turmoil on personality conflicts.
"The women just didn't like each — it was a personality clash between Christie Butler and Trish Simms," Duckworth said. "People were spreading rumors about each other, they were not focusing on their work. And I just said, 'Look, you guys need to concentrate on doing your jobs and stop spreading rumors and you just need to do your jobs.' And I think that's part of what was happening."
Series of lawsuits
In 2008, Butler and Goins filed a federal lawsuit against Simms and Duckworth, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated. The case was tossed just months later as U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy ruled state courts were the proper venue for what he described as a "garden-variety workplace case."
Butler and Goins were "irked at the way they were treated by their supervisors. But this happens in every organization, public and private, and is best addressed by state law and collective bargaining," Murphy wrote.
The women then sued in state court, but that case also was quickly thrown out due to technicalities. They amended their complaint and refiled their lawsuit a month later, in September 2009.
The case hung around for years, with Butler and Goins occasionally missing court deadlines and seeing their claims for emotional distress dismissed. Still, they pressed forward and depositions were given in August of last year.
In May, the judge rejected a request to toss the case and set an August trial date. The attorney general, who is representing Duckworth because she was a state official at the time, had argued Duckworth's efforts to fire Butler, who had worked for the state for 22 years, were based solely on "insubordination."
The case finally appeared to be over in June. The attorney general's office announced it had been settled for $26,000 with no finding of wrongdoing. A Duckworth campaign spokesman called the settlement "appropriate for what was always a frivolous workplace case."
But underscoring just how politicized the case has become, Butler and Goins balked at the deal publicly the day before Duckworth's turn in the national spotlight at the Democratic National Convention. Their lawyer cited comments from Duckworth "that really inflamed my clients."
"I've had several rounds with my clients in the last two weeks trying to calm them down as they have previously refused to sign any settlement agreement," their lawyer later wrote in an email to the attorney general's office.
Butler and Goins have not returned repeated calls and emails for comment. The attorney general's office maintains the settlement agreement is final and has filed a motion to enforce it, leaving the case in legal limbo as a Union County judge has ordered both sides to discuss the matter Wednesday.
Other problems at Anna
Duckworth left the state veterans' affairs agency in early 2009 to work for President Barack Obama at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Disputes among the employees continued.
Other problems at Anna, which opened in 1994, mirrored issues at the larger federal Veterans Affairs department.
An audit released in 2011 found that workers at the veterans home didn't admit veterans on the wait list "in the proper order." That includes an applicant who was ninth on the short-term skilled nursing care wait list as of July 2008, and was bypassed by 19 others — including some who didn't appear on the wait list — before finally being admitted more than a year later. That happened during Duckworth's tenure.
In addition, the state audit found people were removed from the wait list without notes or other documentation as to why. Auditors found 37 people on a short-term skilled nursing care wait list were not admitted later, and their names did not appear on subsequent wait lists.
Duckworth told the Tribune last week that she inherited wait list problems at state VA homes and "it was one of those things I was trying desperately to fix."
"There were issues with the waiting lists and we were constantly scrubbing them and I had to rely on my nursing home administrators to tell me what they were doing to take a look at keeping those waiting lists as accurate as possible," Duckworth said. "And oftentimes, some of the lists, what would happen would be veterans would actually move out of state, they'd move back with their children in some other state. Or sometimes veterans passed away and you would just have to — and so then you would see veterans whose place moved around on that list."
The administrator who kept the wait lists was Simms, the woman at the center of the dispute with Butler and Goins. State officials tried to fire Simms in part because they said she failed to properly maintain the wait lists.
Simms challenged the firing, and in answers to questions in that case, state VA attorneys stated six veterans who should have been on wait lists were not included and later died.
The state did not directly blame Simms for the deaths, and an administrative law judge ruled that while Simms was responsible for wait list issues at Anna, others at the home also shared some blame. The accusations were dropped after Simms agreed to resign and never seek a state VA job again.
Duckworth said she did not know about the six deaths and had no way to interfere with the wait list.
"Where the veterans were on the list was not anything that I had any ability to influence because it was influenced by time and physicians' review of the medical condition of the veterans, as submitted with their medical application from their physician," she said.
Now Kirk's campaign is using the audit and records from Simms' civil service case to blast Duckworth in a TV ad.
"Wait lists were manipulated. The result? Six Illinois veterans died while waiting for care," an announcer says. "When whistleblowers came forward to report abuse, Duckworth bullied and fired them. No wonder Tammy Duckworth is going to court."
The wait list issue has never been part of the lawsuits Butler and Goins filed against Duckworth.
In an interview with the Tribune, Simms, now living in Oklahoma, called the lawsuit brought by Butler and Goins "frivolous" and disputed the allegations they leveled against her. Simms also said any accusations that veterans died due to the wait list issue are "insane."
"On a regular basis you went through the lists, you'd call and then talk to a family and they'd say they weren't ready to move their dad into a veterans home and then they go to the bottom of the list," she said.
To try to resolve wait list problems and other issues, Duckworth said she authorized the position of central administrator over the state's veterans' homes, but it was not filled until after she left her state job.
Duckworth also said Simms "just wasn't a very good manager." Still, Duckworth acknowledged she gave Simms performance reviews that deemed her "acceptable," a middle grade for such evaluations.
"I didn't give her an outstanding," Duckworth said. "I didn't give her an exceptional."
Simms, who said she's a Republican, defended Duckworth, saying she thinks she did a good job running the state VA.
"I'm not here to slam anybody except I feel like a lot has been blown out of proportion at the Anna home and that shouldn't even be an issue. The case has been thrown out twice, so why does it keep raising its ugly head?" Simms asked. "We need to get back to the facts about what is happening to Illinois."