Mark Kirk’s use of an assumed name — last January was not the first time

Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune story about the queasiness of public officials revealing hospitalizations sent an alarm off in my head. Katherine Skiba and Todd Lighty, in a story prompted by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s (D-Ill.) weird disappearance and the silence in its aftermath, focused also on Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who, they write, experiencing dizziness and numbness, checked himself into Lake Forest Hospital last Jan. 21 under the assumed name Hillel Underwood.

Skiba and Lighty quote doctors and others saying that using a fake name is done, although not often.

The reporters note that Kirk, 52, refused a request for an interview on the subject and that Eric Elk, Kirk’s Chicago chief of staff, “turned aside the question of whether Kirk had ever used [the alias Hillel Underwood] before."

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He has, according to my notes of interviews with Kirk’s ex-wife Kimberly Vertolli. That alias sounded familiar to me because it came up in long conversations with Vertolli that started with my interviews with her in August 2010, during the nasty campaign against Alexi Giannoulias. Vertolli was then supporting Kirk’s election, although given also to harsh criticism of his personal life. (See my two-part Q-and-A with her) The two have since, Vertolli has told me, stopped speaking, and Vertolli filed an FEC complaint against him late last year, alleging, according to Skiba and Lighty, who broke that story in late May, "that the Kirk campaign may have improperly hidden money to [Dodie] McCracken [a former Kirk staffer and romantic interest] by paying her through another company working for the campaign. Because the money was not paid directly to McCracken, her name does not appear in Kirk's federal disclosures.”

Vertolli had talked to me over the course of 2010 and 2011 about Kirk and mentioned various health issues he had faced during and after their marriage, including his use of an alias when he sought hospital services.

On the late morning of Jan. 23, 2012, when Kirk’s stroke and subsequent three surgeries, including one to remove a piece of his skull in order to relieve brain swelling, was announced to the public, I called Vertolli and found her shopping in a Staples store in suburban New Jersey and unaware of her ex-husband’s medical crisis. Shocked and saddened, she talked about some of the issues in his health history.

A week later, on Jan. 30, she called me and mentioned the Underwood alias, in the context of this being a longstanding practice. “Hillel Underwood was [Mark’s] pen name for checking into hospitals,” she said. She also forwarded me an email she had sent to a top Kirk staffer a week earlier, on the day Kirk’s stroke was announced, that asked — I’m paraphrasing here — if he knew about the alias that Mark Kirk uses when he gets so sick he can’t use the prescription meds he has in his cabinet.

After an update and some video on his progress last May, we, Kirk’s constituents, have heard nothing beyond press releases about his work from his Highland Park home on various legislative issues of the day — for example his conferring, presumably by telephone, with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on the selection of a new U.S. attorney to replace Patrick Fitzgerald.

I was unable to reach Vertolli by phone or email to ask for more details. A call and email to Eric Elk in Kirk’s Chicago office was not answered by post time.

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