QUINCY -- The deaths of 14 people linked to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy became a focal point of Thursday's third and final gubernatorial debate between Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker.
The hourlong debate inside Quincy Community Theatre at the Oakley-Lindsay Center was peppered with charges by Pritzker that Rauner's administration deserved to be the subject of a criminal investigation for not acting quickly enough after the Legionella outbreak.
Rauner, in turn, claimed that the "so-called criminal investigation is a political ploy to divert attention from the tax fraud that Mr. Pritzker has engaged in."
The two candidates in the Nov. 6 gubernatorial election bashed each other repeatedly while being questioned by a panel of five Central Illinois journalists in the only debate to be held downstate.
Pritzker wasted no time attacking Rauner over the Legionnaires' disease outbreaks at the Illinois Veterans Home since 2015.
"Over the course of three years the neglect and fatal mismanagement led to 14 deaths and 70 people getting sick," Pritzker said. "As a result of his failures and his fatal mismanagement, he is now under a criminal probe -- as is his administration. It's a shameful neglect of our veterans who we should be standing up for every single day."
Rauner defended his administration's response to the outbreaks, which led to the development of a five-year, $230 million plan to upgrade the 132-year-old campus.
"Immediately, the first day, action was taken to keep the veterans safe," Rauner said.
"Water supplies were shut off. Windows were closed. Fountains were shut down. Bathtubs were drained and no longer used. And the veterans were evaluated for their health condition. Those who were infected were treated promptly. Everyone else was monitored, and the families of those veterans who showed some symptoms were notified immediately when a change in the health condition of their loved ones" was detected.
Pritzker countered that "actions were not taken immediately. In fact, six days went by (before residents and families were notified), and as a result, people got sick and someone died."
Pritzker pledged he would keep open the Veterans Home if elected governor.
"Absolutely," he said. "I believe that this veterans home needs to be rebuilt, and I will commit myself to finishing the job of keeping our veterans safe right here in Quincy."
Rauner accused Pritzker of politicizing "the suffering of our veterans" for election purposes.
"It is wrong. It is shameful," he said. "There is not a shred of evidence of any criminal action or criminal behavior by anyone involved with Quincy's veterans home or our administration."
Rauner said Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, called for the criminal probe just 24 hours after an inspector general in the Cook County assessor's office determined that Pritzker had engaged in a scheme to defraud taxpayers of $330,000 in property taxes by claiming that a multimillion-dollar mansion was "uninhabitable" after Pritzker ordered toilets removed from the home.
"A Democrat in Cook County government did a multi-month investigation of Mr. Pritzer and determined that Mr. Pritzker engaged in tax fraud, mail fraud and perjury," Rauner said. "So his allies in government quickly created a sham investigation, calling it criminal, to cover up his actual criminal behavior of stealing $330,000 from the hard-working men and women of the state of Illinois."
Rauner alleged Pritzker knowingly tried to commit tax fraud.
"These are serious white-collar crimes," Rauner said. "People have gone to prison for far less than Mr. Pritzer has committed."
Rauner said "there is a very good chance that Mr. Pritzker is indicted in the coming months."
Rauner also accused Pritzer of "using the language of racists" and said he "was caught on FBI wiretap trying to buy the Senate seat or the treasurer's office."
Pritzker scoffed at these allegations.
"You've just heard a desperate rant by a failed governor who is in the final hours of his campaign," Pritzker said. "He's got nothing else -- just lies and excuses."
Pritzker, who eventually paid the full $330,000 in taxes assessed on the mansion, said the building was the subject of a renovation project. "It was halted because it was unclear whether the home would be sold or rented out," he said. Then once the project was restarted, he said, "all of the taxes that were assessed were paid."
Rauner and Pritzker also sparred over questions involving the two-year failure to pass a state budget and whether the state should enact a progressive income tax as Pritzker has proposed.
When Rauner said he would like to see at least $1 million in pledged state money released to help finance the Mid-America Port project in the Quincy area, he blamed House Speaker Michael Madigan for blocking an infrastructure bill for four years "because he wants to have the political message of failure."
Pritzker said Rauner is "living in a state of denial" because many of the campaign promises Rauner made four years ago were never fulfilled.
"We went 736 days without a budget," Pritzker said, adding that the state lost $1 billion in late payment fees and suffered through eight credit rating downgrades.
Rauner, meanwhile, criticized Pritzker for not fully answering a reporter's question regarding what tax rates he envisions for his proposed graduated income tax.
"Mr. Pritzker dodges questions like he dodges his taxes," Rauner said. "Mr. Pritzker won't answer this question because he knows the answer is the middle class is going to get crushed under his plan."