Former state official who allegedly falsified overtime now under scrutiny after collecting more than $71,000 in workers’ comp and disability benefits

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune
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The former Illinois State Police Merit Board official at the center of a politically-fraught case that began when she was accused of falsifying overtime reports is under renewed scrutiny after collecting more than $71,000 in workers’ compensation and disability benefits tied to her unsubstantiated allegations of sexual assault.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration confirmed it is working with Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office to investigate benefits claims made by Jenny Thornley, who was fired last year from her $86,400-per-year job as financial officer for the merit board.

The probe into the benefits claims follows an earlier independent investigation that found evidence was insufficient to back Thornley’s claims of sexual assault. The cost to the state for that effort: nearly $500,000.

Thornley, a volunteer with Pritzker’s 2018 campaign, turned to the governor’s office as an internal merit board investigation into her allegedly bogus overtime was bearing down on her in late January 2020. She sent emails to Pritzker’s top aides and a text to the governor’s wife over the weekend of the 2020 Super Bowl asking for help with sexual misconduct allegations.

M.K. Pritzker responded in a text to Thornley saying that she was unaware of the issues Thornley raised and it was “best I not get involved.” Pritzker assured Thornley that she followed the proper procedure by contacting administration officials and “will leave it to them,” according to texts the governor’s office released following an open records request.

Thornley alleged Jack Garcia, then the merit board’s executive director, reached under her arm and groped her right breast at the agency’s Springfield headquarters on Jan. 23, 2020 — a charge Garcia emphatically denied.

She repeated the allegation to other Pritzker administration aides, various agencies and eventually the Illinois State Police, which submitted a comprehensive report to the Sangamon County state’s attorney. He declined to prosecute Garcia.

Thornley first filed for workmen’s compensation on Jan. 31, four days after reporting the assault to the state Department of Human Rights. She alleged bruising in her workers’ compensation claim and other reports.

In the #MeToo era, such allegations have weakened or brought down many politicians, including former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the Chicago Democrat who failed to hold misbehaving aides in check. After learning of Thornley’s allegations, the Pritzker administration advised the independent merit board to order up an outside investigation that would also include an examination of the alleged overtime fraud.

The investigation, led by former federal prosecutor Christina Egan of McGuireWoods law firm, concluded evidence was sufficient to support the allegations that Thornley filed for overtime she did not work.

But Egan’s investigation, which included 66 interviews, concluded evidence was insufficient to support Thornley’s allegations that Garcia assaulted her.

The cost of that investigation and a small amount of labor advice, nearly $500,000, was funded largely through court fees, according to a Tribune review of state records and internal communications.

“I continue to believe that the answer to an allegation is to make sure it is credibly and thoroughly investigated and, to the extent possible, independently investigated,” Ann Spillane, who as Pritzker’s general counsel advised the board to conduct an outside investigation, said in an interview.

In October, Thornley pleaded not guilty to charges of theft, forgery and official misconduct in Sangamon County for allegedly pumping up her paycheck with extra overtime worth $10,513, state records showed.

Carl Draper, Thornley’s attorney, said they are in the initial stages of reviewing the state’s evidence in the theft case.

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Thornley’s accusation that Garcia engaged in sexual misconduct slowed the merit board’s plans to turn her alleged theft case over to police. In a separate lawsuit, she challenged the board actions that led to the outside investigation, arguing unsuccessfully that officials violated open meeting standards.

The merit board acts independently from the administration and had planned to report Thornley’s alleged theft to the Springfield police the Monday after she sent emails to the governor’s top aides and texted M.K. Pritzker in early February 2020.

That’s when Spillane suggested the agency, given it has only a handful of employees, hire an outside law firm to review the various allegations.

Looking back, Spillane said she didn’t see any other choice for a small agency that does not have the capacity to handle a far-reaching probe.

“When a person makes a serious allegation, whether it’s sexual harassment, race discrimination, sex discrimination, we have to take those seriously, and we have to find a way to do it seriously,” she said.

Spillane acknowledged such investigations can be costly but said the amount paid by the state “reflects the pretty significant difficulties” in pulling together the numerous threads of the case.

Egan’s investigation found that Thornley had been seeking a job at a different agency before she first emailed the governor’s office and became “extremely upset” when the administration did not help her make such a move.

Draper maintained Thornley first raised the sexual assault issue before she learned she would not be getting a position with a different state agency.

Sangamon County State’s Attorney Daniel Wright issued a letter in March 2021 saying no charges would be filed against Garcia following a comprehensive Illinois State Police investigation, which included interviews of Thornley, Garcia and others. Just before Thanksgiving, Wright said in an interview that nothing has changed since he sent the letter.

Even though lie detectors generally are not admissible in court, Garcia also passed a polygraph exam that he took voluntarily within days of Thornley raising the assault allegations, records showed.

Because of the seriousness of their allegations against each other, Garcia and Thornley were both put on paid administrative leave. But following Egan’s report, Garcia was reinstated. A few weeks later, Thornley was fired on July 21, 2020.

That same month, state officials asked the merit board for information about Thornley’s job in connection with the workmen’s compensation claim she had filed the previous January.

Dan Dykstra, the merit board’s attorney, responded that Thornley had been terminated for cause, and the merit board sought to contest the workers’ comp claim.

The merit board unsuccessfully called on the executive inspector general to investigate Thornley’s workers’ comp claim and then turned to anti-fraud investigators at the Illinois Department of Insurance.

Brad Lucchini, assistant deputy director of the agency’s fraud unit, called the Thornley matter a “clear case of fraud,” according to July 27 memo to Garcia written by Emily Fox, the merit board’s program director.

In a letter to Fox, Lucchini said the Thornley case had been “placed in line for investigation.” Lucchini did not return messages left seeking comment.

In a statement, Pritzker’s Department of Central Management Services said it is working with Raoul’s office “to further investigate the merits of Thornley’s claim.”

CMS also said it is “working with the Illinois attorney general’s office, which is an initial step prior to presenting a fraud case to the Illinois Department of Insurance.”

Raoul’s office said it cannot comment on a pending case.

Thornley received $39,563 in salary between the time she reported the sexual misconduct allegation in late January 2020 until she was fired in July 2020, state records showed.

Thornley also received $71,401 — $63,261 in workers’ compensation and $8,140 in a state pension fund’s occupational disability benefits — from late July 2020 up through early September 2021, records showed.

Thornley was indicted Sept. 22 for allegedly padding her paychecks.

Since then, Garcia took a job as public safety director for southwest suburban Burbank, and the five-member merit board promoted Fox to executive director of the merit board.

Shortly after Fox’s promotion, the Pritzker administration removed two members of the five-member merit board, replacing one of them just before Thanksgiving.

Thornley, meanwhile, has a federal lawsuit pending against Garcia and the merit board alleging retaliation against her for calling out Garcia over alleged sexual harassment and misconduct. Thornley, 41, also alleged age discrimination in her lawsuit.

Garcia and the merit board have denied those allegations.

A federal judge appointed an attorney for Thornley in November after she made repeated appearances without one.

Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.

Twitter @RayLong