Ex-Illinois state employee claims innocence, upset with governor's response to harassment case

Dean Olsen
State Journal-Register

Jenny Thornley says her allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against a former boss at a state agency overseeing Illinois State Police employment standards and discipline resulted in a “one-sided” investigation. 

The allegations, she said, also led to unfounded criminal charges against her for allegedly collecting unjustified overtime pay.

“As a woman and a whistleblower, when you bring things to light, you become a target,” she told The State Journal-Register in an interview. “I’m not going to become a statistic. I’m going to stand up for every woman who doesn’t have the power or the confidence to stand up for herself.”

Jenny Thornley

Thornley, 41, a Springfield resident who was chief financial officer of the Illinois State Police Merit Board, was fired July 21, 2020, by the five-member board after working at the agency for more than seven years. 

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The volunteer for Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s 2018 election campaign said she wishes her case would have resulted in the Pritzker administration and state lawmakers focusing on fair treatment of women in the workplace rather than on politics heading into an election year. 

“In the political arena, they say they support women, but really, it’s the opposite,” she said. “I’m very disappointed in their reaction.”

Thornley was paid $86,556 annually by the Springfield-based board, not including overtime. She said she was innocent of Sangamon County charges of forgery, theft and official misconduct handed down by a grand jury last month.

She is accused of cheating the state out of between $10,000 and $100,000 in 2019 for overtime that officials said she never worked.

Thornley hasn’t issued a formal plea yet in the case, which is being handled by a special prosecutor and carries a potential penalty of four to 15 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

She was not arrested and instead received a notice to appear in court. A Sangamon County Circuit Court hearing in the case is scheduled Oct. 28.

Sexual harassment lawsuit

Thornley’s former boss was Jack Garcia, executive director of the merit board from April 2017 until his recent departure from the state agency to become director of public safety for the city of Burbank, a Chicago suburb. 

Garcia, 60, an Orland Park resident who previously served 27 years as an Illinois State Police officer, including five as deputy director of ISP’s forensic services division, has denied the allegations in Thornley’s sexual harassment lawsuit. The merit board, which also is named in the suit, has denied Thornley’s allegations.

The suit remains pending in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

Garcia was paid $105,000 annually for his work as a contractual employee to lead the merit board. He didn’t return a phone call from The State Journal-Register. Emily Fox, 30, an eight-year employee of the board whose annual salary is $115,632, was named acting executive director. 

According to court documents, the internal investigation that the merit board hired the McGuireWoods law firm to perform took place in February, March and June of 2020 after Thornley complained about sexual harassment to the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General and members of the Pritzker administration.

Thornley alleged that Garcia grabbed one of her breasts during a private meeting in January 2020 in the board office, a claim Garcia has denied.

The Pritzker aides notified by Thornley included senior adviser Nikki Budzinski, Chief of Staff Anne Caprara and Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell, according to the 129-page McGuireWoods report on the investigation.

Thornley also sent texts to MK Pritzker, the governor’s wife, about her concerns, the report said.

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In her lawsuit, Thornley said she made numerous reports and complaints of misconduct to the board’s ethics officer about Garcia from June 2017 through January 23, 2020.

Garcia's attorneys said in court documents responding to the lawsuit that Thornley’s case was “about Thornley aggressively leveraging her political influence and powerful connections to insulate her from any accountability for her corrupt actions.”

Garcia's attorneys continued that Thornley, when faced with Garcia uncovering her alleged overtime fraud, “fabricated the most explosive false allegations that she could invent, allegations that could spread throughout state government in an effort to discredit, hurt, and neutralize Garcia. ... She portrayed the calculated efforts to obstruct justice as a noble crusade, stating that her legal counsel will work ‘to ensure that the Director of the State Police Merit Board does not have a chance to put his hands on another woman as he has done to me.’”

Thornley denied she was trying to use political connections to unfairly influence the outcome of her complaints.

The McGuireWoods report said evidence in the investigation “is sufficient to support a finding that Thornley caused payments to herself for overtime she did not work.”

Evidence is “insufficient to support a finding that Garcia sexually assaulted Thornley,” the report said.

Thornley “did not make herself available” to be interviewed by McGuireWoods because her attorney said she had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the report.

The report added, “Although the fact an alleged victim does not sit for an interview is not evidence one way or the other of whether the assault occurred, we have evidence that she falsely claimed having COVID in order to avoid being interviewed.”

Thornley said she did come down with COVID and didn’t fabricate the diagnosis. She said she offered another date in which she could be interviewed, but McGuireWoods didn’t respond to the offer.

Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said “the administration takes allegations of sexual and professional misconduct seriously. As with any case in which members of this administration learn of serious allegations of misconduct, we take appropriate and well-established steps, including recommending an independent investigation be conducted.”

Abudayyeh noted Thornley and Garcia were put on paid leave “to allow the investigation to go forward.” 

Abudayyeh said Ann Spillane, the governor’s general counsel, responded to an email from Thornley, telling Thornley “that she was handling the issue and would discuss it with senior staff as needed and, as a result, there was no need to reach out additionally to the First Lady.”

Abudayyeh said MK Pritzker informed Thornley “that members of the administration needed to handle the issue in line with established procedures.”

 Abudayyeh said Garcia returned to his work in June 2020.

Neil Olson, general counsel for the inspector general’s office, wouldn’t comment on Thornley’s complaints, and the office hasn’t issued any statements or reports about the case.

Illinois State Police spokeswoman Beth Hundsdorfer said ISP “conducted a detailed and thorough investigation" into Thornley's allegations of sexual misconduct by Garcia.

Results of the investigation were presented to Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright, but no charges were filed, Hundsdorfer said. 

In a March 15, 2021, letter to ISP officials, Wright, a Republican, wrote that the investigation “does not contain evidence sufficient to prove a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, no charges will be filed at this time."

The campaign of Nikki Budzinski, who no longer works for Pritzker and has declared her intention to run as a Democrat in 2022 for Congress against U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, had no comment on the matter.

The McGuireWoods report indicated Budzinski passed on information she received from Thornley to the governor’s deputy general counsel.

Since Thornley’s indictment, Republicans in the Illinois House and Senate have questioned whether Pritzker and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly tweaked a criminal-justice reform bill passed in January — which Pritzker later signed into law — so Garcia would be required to leave the merit board agency by January 2022.

Garcia, the first Latino to serve as executive director, was hired by a merit board whose members were appointed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican.

Democrats who control the General Assembly added a section to the criminal-justice bill in the hours before its passage that prohibits the board’s staff from being retired or former employees of the state police beginning Jan. 1, 2022.

The section says the requirement is designed “to avoid actual conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest.”

Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, sent the Oct. 1 letter to Democratic leaders in the two chambers and Pritzker. The Republicans haven’t received any responses to their letter, according to state Rep. John Curran, R-Downers Grove.

The legislation “was clearly retaliation against Director Garcia,” Curran said.

State Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, a sponsor of the criminal-justice bill, denied Curran’s allegation.

“There was no consideration of the former director,” Sims said. “His name never came up in those negotiations.”

The language that was inserted had been recommended in previous testimony in Senate committee hearings, Sims said. 

More:Ethics bill clears Illinois House, heads back to Gov. JB Pritzker's desk

The Republicans’ implication there was a political motive behind that section of the bill is “just indicative of the season weren’t about to enter where everything is political in nature,” Sims said.

Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s spokeswoman, said ethics reforms for the police merit board that were included in the criminal-justice reform bill “were long overdue to ensure that there is no favoritism in hiring, promotions and discipline.”

She added “both the public and ISP officers should have complete confidence that officers are being held to the highest ethical standards and that merit board decisions are made without bias affecting preexisting relationships.”

“Going forward,” Abudayyeh said, “the administration also believes that the role of executive director at the police merit board should be filled by a full-time state employee and not a contract worker. Because of the critical role in determining discipline for ISP officers, the role should not be filled by a former ISP officer collecting a pension and serving on contract.”

Contact Dean Olsen: dolsen@gannett.com; (217) 836-1068; twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.