SPRINGFIELD — While the Department of Public Health faced the baffling return of Legionnaires' disease at a state-run veterans home in 2016, a top administrator left to work on Republican campaigns for the Illinois House, records reviewed by The Associated Press show.
Erik Rayman, the chief of staff to Public Health Director Dr. Nirav Shah, took a leave of absence in October and November 2016, just two months after the return of the deadly disease at the Quincy veterans home that claimed 12 lives the previous summer and another last fall. Four new cases were reported last month.
The crisis at the 130-year-old campus has become a vexing political burden for Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who barely escaped a primary election challenge last week from a little-known state representative and faces a billionaire Democrat in November.
Rauner maintains that his administration has done all it can to stop the spread of the disease at the home, following experts' advice and making improvements to the facility. He even lived at the home for a week in January to get a closer look and show it is safe.
Rayman, 39, declined an interview request. Although it's unknown how central a role he played in the response to the Legionnaires' crisis before he went on leave, as Shah's chief of staff, he would have helped ensure that Shah's orders were carried out. Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said that when Rayman went on leave, an experienced replacement filled in for him. But critics question the wisdom and motives of replacing a key figure during a time of crisis.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was incensed.
"Why is the chief of staff doing campaign work?" Cullerton asked. "I understand that people come out of different offices and take leaves of absences, but it's never a chief of staff. With everything going on in Public Health, the chief of staff is the most important person in that department."
Campaign documents show that for his political work during his 2016 leave, Rayman was paid $15,732 by the House Republican Organization, which ultimately picked off four state House seats controlled by Rauner's powerful nemesis, Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan. Rauner had made a political priority that fall of winnowing Madigan's margin, which is now 67-51.
Records show that Rayman also earned $28,719 in 2014 working on Rauner's campaign for governor, before he joined the Public Health Department in January 2015, when Rauner took office. Rayman health department salary is $125,000.
It's not unusual for agency staff members such as legislative liaisons, who deal with lawmakers in their official capacities, to take leaves of absence from the state payroll to run campaigns. It's highly unusual for a chief of staff. The Public Health organizational chart places the chief of staff and assistant director on an equal level, just below the director.
Sen. Paul Schimpf, a Republican member of the Veterans Affairs Committee from Waterloo, said a key to analyzing the situation is determining whether Rayman was personally in charge during what lawmakers have determined was a critical period in the Quincy saga. The Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, after the devastating summer of 2015, installed a $6.4 million system in June 2016 to treat the campus water, which harbors the bacteria and sickens people when it's inhaled from water vapor.
In August 2016 the administration summoned a consulting engineer whose report listed nearly a dozen options for further remedial action, including an $8 million option for replacing critical portions of ancient, corroded plumbing that federal experts had flagged as a likely breeding ground for Legionella bacteria.
But Veterans' Affairs Director Erica Jeffries has told lawmakers that the administration took no action on the engineers' report because officials wanted to see if the treatment system fixed the problem. It didn't, as three more cases of Legionnaires' were confirmed in July of 2016.
"Time has borne out that that (treatment system) did not solve the problem, but at the time, they thought that was going to be the solution," Schimpf said. "It really would depend on if the chief of staff had taken personal charge of the response. If so, that's not something I would second guess, but it would make me raise an eyebrow."
Arnold declined to comment on whose idea it was for Rayman to hit the campaign trail, but she said Shah approved it. She noted there were no cases of Legionnaires' diagnosed during his absence, although the disease resurfaced after his return, claiming a 13th life last summer and leading to four new confirmed cases last month.
"IDPH continued to operate with a director, assistant director, and chief of staff," Arnold said. "The previous IDPH assistant director, Michelle Gentry-Wiseman, served as the acting the chief of staff."
Gentry-Wiseman was with the department from 1990 to 2003 and returned in 2015 as assistant director until retiring June 2016, Arnold said. And Rayman worked for a week with Gentry-Wiseman before departing to "ensure a continuity of operations."
"In October and November 2016, IDPH continued acting in its role as a technical adviser ... on infection control procedures and water remediation efforts the facility should be taking," Arnold said. "No cases of Legionnaires' disease were diagnosed during this period."