‘I cannot fathom the idea that any one of us would…wish for a family member of one of our colleagues to die…’
(Mike Riopell and Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune) A Democratic Illinois lawmaker said she wanted to pump a lethal “broth of Legionella” bacteria into the water system of a Republican colleague’s family, during heated remarks on the Illinois House floor over a bill aimed at helping families of more than a dozen residents at the Downstate Quincy veterans home who died of Legionnaires’.
The bill would raise limits on damages in some state Court of Claims cases from $100,000 to $2 million, which could affect the victims’ families, who allege the state was negligent in the deaths that resulted from outbreaks at the veterans home over the past three years. Gov. Bruce Rauner rewrote the proposal over the summer to reduce such caps on damage awards to $300,000, but lawmakers voted Tuesday to override him.
During the House floor debate over the proposal, Republican state Rep. Peter Breen of Lombard questioned some of the plan’s details, contending the state doesn’t know how much it will cost. Breen, the outgoing House GOP floor leader, noted that multiple tort claims could be paid out for the same incident.
“And, yes, we know the personal injury lawyers are going to make out like bandits, which they tend to do anytime they come to the General Assembly,” Breen said.
Minutes later, Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, a co-sponsor of the legislation, stood up to attack Breen.
“I would like to make him a broth of Legionella and pump it into the water system of his loved one, so that they can be infected, they can be mistreated, they can sit and suffer by getting aspirin instead of being properly treated and ultimately die. And we are talking about our nation’s heroes,” said Kifowit, a Marine veteran.
Kifowit recounted questions over the Rauner administration’s handling of repeated outbreaks at the home, which are the subject of a grand jury investigation by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and, in closing, said, “I respectfully ask for you to support this bill.”
Lawmakers voted 71-36 to raise the cap on lawsuit damages, the bare minimum number of votes they needed to override Rauner. The bill passed in May with 79 House votes. The Senate voted two weeks ago to override Rauner.
Breen yelled off microphone after Kifowit’s speech and Republican state Rep. Keith Wheeler of Oswego urged the chamber to reflect on the scale of the rhetoric.
“We lost our way today. I cannot fathom the idea that any one of us would ever publicly make a statement that is effectively a wish for a family member of one of our colleagues to die. That is what was said today. I think that’s despicable,” Wheeler said. “We shouldn’t stand for that.”
Later, after the vote, Kifowit said her words were misheard, misrepresented, misinterpreted and mischaracterized.
“Quite clearly what I said was ‘imagine if it was your family,’ “ she said, though she didn’t use those words. “So if it was misheard, I’ll apologize for the misheard, but my words were clearly, ‘Imagine if it was your family.’ “ Kifowitz acknowledged that her remarks “are all transcribed, and my words will be clear.”
On Twitter, she later said, “My words were twisted and misrepresented.” She added in another tweet, “I never stated anything to wish his family death.”
The deaths at the Quincy veterans home dogged Rauner’s re-election campaign. The post-Civil War-era facility is where 14 people have died and nearly 70 others have been sickened by Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks since 2015. At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed since the initial outbreak, claiming negligence by the state.
In its legal filings, the state has denied any negligence and Rauner has said the state has followed all recommendations of federal experts at the Quincy home. In April, Rauner’s veterans affairs director resigned.
In his amendatory veto, Rauner wrote that raising the $100,000 cap on damages to $2 million through the state Court of Claims was “effectively ignoring the impact of vastly expanded future litigation on the fiscal position of the state and its taxpayers.”
“I recognize that the current law is outdated and in need of adjustment,” he wrote. “However, this adjustment should reflect regional and national averages in order to properly compensate those who, once properly adjudicated, were found harmed by the state of Illinois.”
The $100,000 cap was established in 1972.
The vote to override Rauner’s veto on Tuesday came as lawmakers returned to Springfield for what could be their last clash with him, as they consider overriding dozens of the governor’s vetoes less than two months before he leaves office.
Rauner hasn’t made many appearances since losing his re-election bid to Democratic Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker and hasn’t been publicly defending his vetoes. That’s in contrast to his high-profile four years fighting Democrats who control the General Assembly.
(Riopell reported from Springfield and Pearson reported from Chicago.)
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