CHICAGO — — The Republican race for Illinois governor took a nasty turn Friday, with Treasurer Dan Rutherford accusing venture capitalist Bruce Rauner of being behind a "fishy" scheme to taint his image ahead of the primary.
Rutherford announced — during a hastily called news conference — that a treasurer's office employee who has made "allegations of misconduct" against him was being represented by an attorney who had been on Rauner's payroll. Rutherford said the attorney demanded $300,000 on the employee's behalf to "walk away and keep it under wraps."
The attorney later released a statement saying the allegations were "serious and real" and had initially been filed with a state inspector general, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. But lawyer Christine Svenson didn't describe her client or the claims.
Rauner struck back at Rutherford by saying he should focus on clearing up the allegations. His spokesman Mike Schrimpf dismissed Rutherford's claims as false.
Rutherford said his office was launching an external investigation into the employee's allegations after an internal probe showed "absolutely no truth" to the claims.
"There is something very, very fishy about the timing and with regards to who's behind it," Rutherford told reporters.
Rutherford, a Chenoa Republican, declined to provide any details about the employee's allegations, citing restrictions in dealing with a personnel matter. Neil Olson, general counsel for the treasurer's office, said outside counsel and a consultant firm had been retained for an independent probe because the treasurer is the accused.
Schrimpf said the lawyer mentioned by Rutherford worked for Rauner last spring on an office space lease. The attorney was paid a one-time fee of $3,500 and nothing was discussed with the attorney related to the treasurer, Schrimpf said.
"Treasurer Rutherford should spend his time answering the serious claims made against him by a state employee, rather than trying to distract attention with a ridiculous false claim against us," Schrimpf said in an emailed statement.
Rutherford said the allegations were an attempt to knock him down ahead of the March 18 primary. Olson said the alleged conversation seeking the $300,000 happened within the last week.
Svenson, the lawyer for the accuser, said in the statement that she contacted Rutherford's office directly after investigating her client's allegations. She said Rutherford and his attorneys had expressed "a strong interest in keeping the matter private" and that the two sides had been negotiating in good faith until as recently as Thursday.
She said the claims had nothing to do with politics.
"I have nothing against Dan Rutherford, and have no horse in the governor's primary race," Svenson said.
Rutherford and Rauner are among four candidates seeking the party's nomination at a critical juncture for the Illinois GOP. After 2010, when seven candidates sought the GOP gubernatorial nod at one time, party officials were hoping for a 2014 campaign that would keep the focus on replacing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn instead of intraparty squabbles. Quinn faces one primary challenger, anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman.
The other Republicans running for governor — state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady — have raised questions about Rauner's financial dealings and his daughter's admission into an elite Chicago school. Rauner shot back during a debate in early January, called it a "beat up Brucey" event and scrutinized the other three candidates' connections to union money.
Friday's twist — with the allegation of a shakedown and questions about Rutherford's tenure as treasurer — took on a new tone. During the news conference, Rutherford raised his voice several times, particularly when talking about Rauner. He alleged the misconduct claim was a well-thought out scheme and that he'd been "set up."
"It's trench warfare from now on," said political strategist Don Rose.
Rutherford is set to begin airing television ads next week, the second candidate to do so after Rauner. Rutherford ended the last quarter with about $1.37 million cash on hand, more than any other GOP candidate. But Rauner has raised about $4 million in the last quarter, far outpacing all the other GOP candidates.
"We've seen another person enter the race with millions and millions and millions of dollars who is specifically noted to say he is going to destroy his opponents," Rutherford said. "Nice try. Rutherford is staying in this race. I'm going to turn this back on him and I'm going to be the Republican nominee."
Olson said more information could be detailed later. He said the independent probe "will be thorough and bring it to light at some point when it's appropriate."