PROVIDENCE – A Chicago-area general contractor says Ashley Kalus, the Republican candidate for governor in Rhode Island, ridiculed and threatened him amid a billing dispute over work he was doing for her four years ago.
“It was a good showpiece project,” Michael Gruener told the Globe in an interview. “But it’s unfortunate how adults behave.”
Gruener said he submitted evidence of the insults and threats to court as part of a separate dispute that arose from the project. The Globe reviewed text messages Kalus sent to Gruener in which she called him a “pussy bitch,” a “bottom,” a “pathetic loser,” and “Mr. Mom.”
Kalus’ campaign did not deny that the messages were from her. Her spokesman, Matt Hanrahan, said they were sent over the course of months of frustrating construction delays and disputes with Gruener.
“What they show about Ashley is that she is a fighter,” Hanrahan said in an email. “Rhode Islanders are strong, not meek, and they deserve a governor as tough as they are.”
“Chicago is a rough and hard city,” Hanrahan continued. “For Ashley to make it in business in Chicago as a woman, she could not tolerate being pushed around. She stood up for herself, her family, and her business when it came to Michael Gruener. Ashley was successful in business because she was never afraid to stand up to those who attempted to take advantage of her or her family.”
Kalus faces incumbent Governor Dan McKee, a Democrat, in the Nov. 8 election. Early voting has started.
Gruener said his company in 2018 was the general contractor for renovation work on a Chicago building owned by a company associated with Kalus and her husband, plastic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Weinzweig. The building, on West Ontario Street, included Weinzweig’s surgical offices; Chicago city records show permits were issued in August 2017. The project was difficult from early on, Gruener said, and eventually devolved into insults and threats.
Many of the exchanges were in person and verbal, like when Kalus would get into a boxing stance and bring up her boxing background, Gruener said. But some were via text message, generally stemming from arguments over billing. Gruener said he stopped working on the building because Kalus and Weinzweig were delaying payments to him; Kalus’ campaign and the architect who worked with Gruener on the project say the contractor tried to charge Kalus for questionable items.
The dispute played out in a series of acrimonious text messages, which Gruener shared with the Globe.
“I’ll make my money back in making you lose money in the future,” Kalus wrote in one message to Gruener. “You like being my little bitch. Always adjusting your pants. Gross little bitch.”
“I can’t wait to pay to keep f—ing you for the next year,” Kalus wrote in another message, spelling out the F-word.
Kalus also taunted Gruener about his “social status,” the texts show. (Hanrahan did not dispute the message, but said, “Ashley came from nothing and has always been for working people.”)
It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced, Gruener said. And it’s not that he objected to profanities. Working in construction, you hear curse words. Not like this, he said.
“There was no reason for it,” Gruener said.
Gruener said he eventually walked away from the job before it was completed because of billing problems. Kalus’ campaign said he was “terminated.”
Kalus’ campaign said Gruener was to blame for the dispute, and pointed to a court case in Illinois in which Gruener’s company, MJS Design & Build, was sued by a supplier related to the renovation. Gruener said the supplier brought surgical doors to Weinzweig’s building even though they were supposed to be picked up only by Gruener, and disputed having to pay for them himself. A judgment was entered against Gruener’s company in favor of that supplier for more than $12,000, Kalus’ campaign said, providing documentation of the dispute. Weinzweig was called to testify in that case, Kalus’ campaign said. The suit appears to have been filed in 2019, and the judgment entered in late September this year.
“Because of Jeff’s sworn testimony, Gruener blames Jeff for the loss,” Hanrahan said.
Gruener said he is appealing the decision.
Others who worked on the project said they did not hear Kalus speak to Gruener inappropriately, and blamed Gruener for the problems with the project.
“I think Ashley, from my experience with her, was a very nice lady, and I don’t think (Gruener’s) complaints are justified,” Orest Baranyk, the architect on the project, said in a phone interview. Baranyk added later: “She did tell me that they did have some interactions which were unpleasant. I know the reasons for that – he was trying to, in effect, charge for things that were not justified.”
But Bob Dillon, who worked for Gruener as a laborer, echoed Gruener’s account, saying Kalus would “walk around screaming at people, ordering us around.
Kalus’ campaign said they did not know who Dillon was.
Taras Petryshyn, who also worked on the project, said he and other contractors had zero problems with Kalus, including zero problems getting paid for their work.
The Boston Globe approached the Kalus campaign Sunday for comment about the texts; less than an hour later, Gruener said, Weinzweig contacted him threatening to sue. Gruener soon after received correspondence from multiple lawyers saying he’d violated a confidentiality agreement, he said. The Kalus campaign said they came to a settlement in November 2019 that included “a non-disclosure agreement to protect the contractor from negative on-line reviews.”
Kalus’ campaign acknowledged Weinzweig talked with Gruener, and said Gruener implied his comments would be retracted if he received payment, which Gruener denies. Instead, he said he told Weinzweig that he’d already caused him to lose $12,000, and wanted to be left alone.
Though Hanrahan said the NDA was to protect Gruener, in an email to the Globe he described Gruener’s work as “substandard,” and that he had tried to “bully” Kalus.
“Gruener’s performance of the construction work did not meet the requirements of his contract,” he said. “He routinely tried to take advantage of Jeff and Ashley with extras, questionable draws, and substandard work. He was eventually terminated. Before then, Gruener repeatedly made vile comments to Ashley trying to intimidate and bully her. It didn’t work. She responded in kind. That is what you have to do sometimes with a bully.”
The campaign declined to provide details about Gruener’s “vile” comments to Kalus, citing the non-disclosure agreement; Gruener said he did not make any such comments and, as for the quality of the work, pointed out that the surgery center used photos of his work on its website.
The Chicago building renovation is not the only Kalus business arrangement to end in acrimony.
A lawsuit filed in Chicago accuses Kalus and Weinzweig of breach of contract and “common law fraud.” The suit was filed by Kelley Folino, the chief operating officer of Adhereon, an Illinois-based breast-implant device marketing company. In a March 31 Rhode Island Ethics Committee filing, Kalus identified as the CEO of Adhereon, The Providence Journal reported. Folino had been Kalus’ boss when they both worked for Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.
Hanrahan told the Providence Journal: “The suit is meritless.”
WPRI reported on Friday on a police report in which a woman accused Kalus of kicking and pushing her in their Chicago surgery building. Kalus was not charged or, her campaign says, even contacted. The Kalus campaign said the incident did not happen and was entirely fabricated.
Kalus, who bought a house in Newport last year, got a contract from the state to do COVID-19 testing and vaccination, which also ended early. The two sides are in mediation.