A Democratic state legislator is facing calls for her resignation after she said during a fiery floor speech she would like to pump a “broth of Legionella” into a Republican colleague’s water system so his loved ones “can be infected” and “ultimately die.”
Illinois state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit’s comments, delivered Tuesday during a debate about a bill that would significantly raise damages given to families of veterans who died during a Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the state, was met with swift backlash from Illinois Republicans.
Kifowit, a co-sponsor of the bill and a Marine veteran, said shortly afterward her words were “twisted and misrepresented.”
On Wednesday, she apologized to state Rep. Peter Breen for her poor choice of words.
In addressing Breen earlier, Kifowit said: “I would like to make him a broth of Legionella and pump it into the water system of his loved ones 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.”
Kifowit told The Washington Post her intention was to have Breen imagine himself in the shoes of family members whose loved ones were among the more than a dozen who died after the 2015 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at a veterans' home in western Illinois. Looking back, Kifowit said, she should not have singled out Breen and should have instead called for everyone to imagine themselves in the family members' shoes.
“I did not intend to inflict or insinuate harm on Rep. Breen’s family, or any malfeasance or anything to anybody’s family,” she said.
Breen said Kifowit’s comments are a sign that “toxic and dangerous” rhetoric plaguing the state had spilled into the legislative process. He said he had expressed concerns during the debate about how much the legislation would cost the state, and he was taken aback by how Kifowit responded.
“She launched her attack against me and my family, and really, it was shock. It was out of left field,” said Breen, who has two adopted sons, ages 2 years and 2 months. He added: “Had Rep. Kisowit made those statements in the parking lot, or left a message on an answering machine in my office, she would be in custody.”
Breen, the outgoing House Republican floor leader, said he had accepted Kifowit’s apology. He said he does not want to question her sincerity, although others have.
State Rep. Jeanne Ives (R) accused Kifowit of twisting a serious issue by vilifying a colleague.
“How dare you. How dare you concoct some sort of story about brewing up some batch of Legionnaires' and having him feed it to his family,” Ives said on the floor Tuesday. “How dare you take the discussion and the debate about a very serious bill that has a huge cost consequences on both sides, by the way, both for the victims and the state taxpayer.”
The bill in question would raise to $2 million the maximum amount of damages that can be awarded to plaintiffs in negligence cases. Lawmakers passed the bill last spring. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), whose administration is under investigation over its handling of the Legionnaires' outbreak, vetoed the bill in August.
In his veto message, Rauner acknowledged the current law limiting the cap to only $100,000 is outdated, but he said adjusting the amount should be based on national and regional averages. A $2 million cap is far higher than those of neighboring states, he wrote, and would make Illinois an extreme outlier. “This legislation could invite frivolous lawsuits and expose taxpayers to hundreds of millions of dollars of potential damages each year without adequate study or justification,” said Rauner, who recommended a $300,000 cap.
Breen had advocated for a cap of $500,000 to $600,000.
The state House of Representatives voted Tuesday to override Rauner’s veto. The Senate did so earlier this month.
Fourteen people have died, and nearly 70 have been sickened, since 2015 after they were exposed to Legionella bacterium at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy. Rauner, who lost his reelection bid to Democrat J.B. Pritzker earlier this month, has been criticized over his administration’s handling of the outbreak and its aftermath. At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed accusing the state of negligence, according to media reports.
Last month, WBEZ reported Rauner’s office delayed informing the public about the outbreak, which began in August 2015. Documents obtained by the Chicago public radio station showed the administration waited six days before telling the residents of the home, their families and the public about the first known cases of Legionnaires’ disease. As the disease spread in 2016 and 2017, Rauner’s office waited weeks, even months, before publicly disclosing individual cases, WBEZ reported.
WBEZ also reported Rauner’s office had known how the outbreak began but did not take necessary steps. Documents obtained by WBEZ showed the Illinois Department of Public Health was aware the home’s water system was infested with bacteria. Nirav Shah, the public health director, said in an email obtained by WBEZ a bacteria-laden “broth of legionella” was mistakenly released into the home’s water system. But the agency did not cite the home for health-code violations.
Legionnaires' disease, a severe and often lethal type of pneumonia, grows in a building’s water system and spreads in small droplets that people breathe in.
Kifowit said she was quoting Shah when she talked about pumping Legionella into her colleague’s water system. She also said Shah should resign.
Rauner’s spokeswoman told WBEZ the governor’s office has “regularly communicated with residents, staff, family members and the general public throughout the past three years.”
The Illinois attorney general’s office has since launched a criminal investigation. “There needs to be an investigation to determine if laws were violated and whether residents of the home, their families, veterans' home staff, and the public were informed in a timely and appropriate manner,” according to a statement from the agency.