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McHenry Co. to pay $378K bill for Bianchi trials

WOODSTOCK – McHenry County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill cut the check Wednesday for the remaining $378,327 that a judge says is due special prosecutors appointed to investigate vindicated State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi.

A majority of the board’s Finance and Audit Committee agreed Tuesday morning to authorize Hill to make the payment immediately to avoid daily late charges that are included in the March 28 court order.

The impetus for immediate payment is the $60.86 per diem penalty included in McHenry County Judge Gordon Graham’s court order, Hill said. It would cost an extra $426 if formal approval was delayed until the next County Board meeting on Tuesday. The order also charged 6 percent annual interest dating to September 2010.

“When you have a court order from a judge, you pay it,” Hill said.

Of the amount, $90,126 will go to special prosecutor Henry Tonigan, $203,297 will go to special prosecutor Thomas McQueen, and $84,903 will go to computer forensics firm Quest Consultants. Their investigation brought 32 charges against Bianchi and three of his employees, all of which resulted in acquittals or were thrown out of court.

Despite the immediate payment, the full County Board still will vote next Tuesday as a bookkeeping matter to take the amount out of its contingency fund, which the committee approved on a 7-0 vote, committee Chairwoman Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, said.

“[The bill] was incurred, the court made a decision to go ahead with these prosecutors, and it is what it is. It’s too late to second-guess it. We’re going forward, and that’s the best we can do. It wasn’t anything we had control over in the first place, and not anything we have control over now,” McCann said Wednesday.

Committee Vice-Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, and members John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, and Yvonne Barnes, R-Cary, opposed immediate payment. Kurtz said she believes that the full County Board should cast the vote to authorize the payment.

“Even if it’s symbolic, I think the entire board should be part of that decision and should have been able to vote on it accordingly,” Kurtz said.

The payment brings the total amount that taxpayers have footed for the investigation to almost $780,000. The total does not include the possibility that taxpayers will have to pay for McQueen’s legal defense against a civil-rights lawsuit brought against him by Bianchi and his fellow acquitted defendants.

Graham appointed Tonigan and McQueen in 2009 to investigate claims by Bianchi’s former secretary that he had her do campaign work for him on taxpayer time. A special grand jury handed down 21 corruption counts against Bianchi, and six against secretary Joyce Synek.

Graham authorized McQueen and Tonigan to expand their investigation, which resulted in three more charges against Bianchi, and one each against state’s attorney investigators Ron Salgado and Michael McCleary.

In two bench trials in 2011, a Winnebago County judge acquitted Bianchi and Synek of all charges without the defense having to call a single witness. The judge threw out the charges against Salgado and McCleary.

While Hill and McCann have kept their feelings on the issue private, their predecessors on the previous County Board – Ken Koehler and Scott Breeden – were vocal critics of the investigation, which they called a politically motivated witch hunt.

The county went to court to fight the special prosecutors’ bills, arguing that they should be paid $91.50 an hour based on the state’s attorney’s annual salary, not the $250-an-hour rate they received. However, the courts eventually sided with the special prosecutors – an appellate court ruled in their favor in September.

The county recouped $105,000 from Tonigan’s settlement of the civil-rights lawsuit filed against him and McQueen. The County Board agreed to pay $275,000 to help cover Bianchi’s and Synek’s legal fees in exchange for reimbursement should they receive damages.

The lawsuit alleges false arrest, malicious prosecution and conspiracy initiated by Bianchi’s political enemies to remove him from office. Tonigan denied culpability in agreeing to the settlement, but the lawsuit against McQueen is ongoing.

The Bianchi investigation prompted a change in state law that took effect last August to rein in judges’ ability to appoint special prosecutors.

A judge must first reach out to other public offices to see whether they can investigate at no cost to the county. If a special prosecutor can’t be avoided, county government has a right to participate in all agreements regarding pay and has the right to an itemized list of expenses. A judge cannot expand the scope of a special prosecutor’s investigation without giving notice to county government.

A McHenry County judge in two unrelated cases last year rejected requests to appoint special prosecutors regarding conduct in the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office.

How they voted

The McHenry County Board Finance and Audit Committee voted Tuesday, 5-2, to authorize board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, to pay $378,327 to comply with a court order mandating payment to special prosecutors appointed to investigate vindicated State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi.

Voting “no” were committee members Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, and John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake. Committee members Yvonne Barnes, R-Cary, James Heisler, R-Crystal Lake, Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, Michael Skala, R-Huntley, and Chairwoman Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, voted “yes.”

What’s next

Although Hill sent the payment Wednesday, the County Board must cast a procedural vote next Tuesday evening to take the money from its contingency fund. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.

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