The office of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker arranged to have the state secretly pay a former campaign aide who had been fired from her government job for stealing after she threatened to use her connections to get out of trouble, a state official claimed in a newly unsealed legal filing.
The state attorney general filed to dismiss the whistleblower’s lawsuit, which would mean allegations of improper political influence will not be probed. But the now-public allegations tell a disturbing tale of corruption and patronage in the Land of Lincoln.
Jenny Thornley was the chief financial officer and director of legislative policy for the Illinois State Police Merit Board, an anti-patronage agency which exists to “remove political influence and provide a fair and equitable merit process.” Although she lacked a college degree, she boasted on her resume that she has “been heavily involved with the following IL races at a high level, Cheri Bustos, Tammy Duckworth, Susana Mendoza, JB Pritzker… and many more,” according to court documents.
In January 2020, Thornley’s boss, Jack Garcia, wrote to the Merit Board’s chairman that he had caught Thornley forging his signature to pad her salary with overtime, according to court documents. Then-Program Administrator Emily Fox — who is now the Merit Board’s executive director and who filed the lawsuit — said, for example, that Thornley billed for 32.5 hours in overtime in September 2019 even though camera footage showed that not only did she not work overtime, but she frequently left during regular hours.
On January 27, 2020, Thornley texted a mutual friend of her’s and Garcia’s and told him, “Garcia does not know who he is messing with, and that the Governor’s office would get involved if Mr. Garcia did not back off,” according to an affidavit.
Four days later, Thornley filed a workers compensation claim saying she had suffered bruising and PTSD from being sexually assaulted by Garcia on January 23, the day after Garcia reported her alleged embezzlement, according to court documents. On the claim form, she listed her employer as the “Governor’s office,” and said that she worked directly for the governor, the documents show.
An independent investigation commissioned by the state later found that the next day, Thornley emailed the governor’s chief of staff Anne Caprara; that she spoke on the phone with Pritzker’s general counsel, Ann Spillane, and said she “looks at the Pritzkers as friends”; and that on February 2, she texted the governor’s wife, M.K. Pritzker.
On February 3, the Merit Board moved to fire Thornley and seek criminal prosecution, according to lawsuit papers. Around that time, Thornley told the governor’s Deputy General Counsel Scott Lerner that “I just really want to make sure that this doesn’t look bad for Governor Pritzker and MK Pritzker,” the state investigation found.
According to court filings, the governor’s office advised the board to hold off on firing Thornley and instead put both her and Garcia on leave. The governor’s office also advised the Merit Board to hire the law firm of McGuire Woods to do an independent investigation, Merit Board Chairman Reeve Waud wrote in an email contained in court filings.
McGuire Woods conducted a thorough investigation costing $550,000, the lawsuit says. As it dragged on, leaving Thornley paid and the Merit Board with no leader even though he had passed a lie detector test corroborating that he did not sexually assault her, Waud wrote to the governor’s office in April that “The Board is unanimously of the view that this has gone on long enough, that your intervention was and remains unwise and inappropriate… If the Governor feels differently, I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the entire situation with him.”
In July, McGuire Woods produced a 133-page report concluding that the evidence showed that Thornley stole from taxpayers, and that it did not support that Garcia sexually assaulted her. It also said that Thornley falsely claimed to have COVID to avoid being interviewed by the investigators. She was fired.
But in September 2020, Fox discovered that Thornley had been receiving workers comp, even though she had already been terminated and even though this would normally require the Merit Board, her employer, to be aware of it and have the opportunity to challenge it, according to the lawsuit. A claims adjuster said it was being handled by Kevin Richey at Central Management Services (CMS), an office close to the governor, the suit said.
“Mr. Richey stated he has the authority to override any case, which he did in this particular case,” Fox wrote in a contemporaneous memo. “Mr. Richey reiterated he could not provide detailed information, but that the Governor’s Office was involved in all communication and decisions regarding this case… stating that he must be ‘evasive’ with me.” That meant that Thornley was being paid 75% of her salary, “tax free with benefits and insurance coverage.”
Garcia attempted to get the Inspector General to investigate the workers comp claim involving Thornley allegedly claiming she worked for the governor, and the governor’s office’s mysterious cooperation, but it did not seem interested, according to the lawsuit.
That led Fox to file a qui tam whistleblower suit, which allows people with knowledge of government fraud to pursue it through the courts, and can allow them to share in recovered funds as a reward.
“The success of Thornley’s most recent false statements is a consequence of the direct involvement of the Governor’s Office,” the lawsuit said. “There is no reason the Governor’s Office should be involved in Thornley’s schemes, except for Thornley’s personal and political relationships with the Governor and/or M.K. Pritzker.”
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