An Illinois judge on Thursday tentatively set a trial date well before the November general election in a 7-year-old workplace retaliation lawsuit accusing Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Duckworth of ethics violations while she led the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
Union County Judge David Boie rejected an effort by government lawyers to dismiss the lawsuit, allowing the case to go to trial in August and remain a campaign issue for Duckworth. The Illinois congresswoman is trying to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk in November. Duckworth did not attend the hearing.
After Thursday's decision, the Duckworth campaign said they were looking ahead to the trial's conclusion and November's election.
"We're looking forward to this politically-motivated case reaching its conclusion after several years and multiple delays," Duckworth spokesman Matt McGrath said in a statement. "And when it's over Mark Kirk will still be a Trump-supporting Republican who lied about his military record at least 10 times while Tammy Duckworth is a 23-year old veteran of the National Guard who was wounded in combat and has made serving veterans her life's work- with tangible accomplishments."
Illinois Republicans have highlighted the case, seeking to thwart Duckworth's bid against Kirk, a first-term moderate in a Democratic-leaning state. Kirk is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican senators.
Kirk's team commended Duckworth's military service Thursday, but criticized the congresswoman's work in the IDVA.
"There's no doubt Duckworth's record and sacrifice in the military should be respected and honored," Kirk spokesman Kevin Artl said in a statement. "But her record as Rod Blagojevich's Director of Veterans Affairs, however, was one plagued by mismanagement and scandal that endangered care of Illinois veterans."
Duckworth's supporters call it a twice-dismissed nuisance suit resuscitated to embarrass her politically amid a campaign with national implications, as Democrats seek a net gain of at least four seats in 2016 to take back the Senate majority Republicans won in 2014.
The case was initially scheduled to go to trial in April and remained largely idle as Duckworth's accusers took more than three years to provide certain documents requested by the state.
Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs and partial use of her right arm during the Iraq War, is being represented by the Illinois Attorney General's Office. Her co-defendant was the home's acting administrator in 2006 and 2007.
After a federal judge dismissed the suit as a "garden variety workplace case," it was refiled in state court — and dismissed again before it was narrowed and brought back a third time.
The state's motion it to be dismissed again argued that Duckworth's efforts to fire 22-year state employee Christine Butler from her administrative job was based solely on "insubordination." Duckworth reversed that decision after being told that she first had to follow written disciplinary procedures and instead issued a reprimand with a paid suspension against Butler.
Human resources secretary Denise Goins alleges that her complaints about her boss were ignored and led to an unfavorable performance review that prevented her from receiving a raise. Goins says Duckworth urged her to "do your job and keep your mouth shut."
Goins and Butler, who both continue to work at the veterans home, also say they were punished for speaking out after Patricia Simms, the acting administrator, allowed unauthorized people to care for a resident. The two state workers are seeking compensation of at least $50,000, as well as other financial penalties.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with a political fight," Butler said. "Our names are still being slung through the mud for speaking up."
Duckworth denies treating the employees unfairly, while Kirk's campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee portray the lawsuit as a whistleblower case. Duckworth previously disputed the allegations in defeating an incumbent Republican for a Chicago-area seat in Congress in 2012.