WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Ethics Commission dismissed an allegation raised by a local blogger that an email sent by Undersheriff Andrew Zinke – who is running for his boss’s job – amounted to campaigning on taxpayer time.
The commission voted Thursday, 4-0, against a motion to find that sufficient evidence exists that Zinke’s email – which challenged allegations that he gave Lakewood blogger Cal Skinner the middle finger at a parade – constituted a prohibited political activity.
Skinner filed a complaint alleging that the July 10 email Zinke sent to all 24 members of the McHenry County Board violated the ordinance because it made multiple references to his campaign for sheriff and was sent during work hours and using Zinke’s county-assigned email address. Zinke is running to succeed Sheriff Keith Nygren, who is not seeking re-election next year.
The commission voted after a 30-minute closed session, with no public discussion prior to its vote. It was the first-ever hearing for the 8-year-old commission, which often appeared during the hourlong meeting to be struggling with how to proceed.
Zinke said after the hearing that he felt vindicated. He was represented by attorneys Mark Gummerson and Rebecca Lee, who addressed commission members at length regarding Zinke’s innocence.
“I did nothing wrong. None of my actions were political,” Zinke said.
Skinner, who also attended, felt otherwise.
“It’s obvious that the McHenry County Ethics Commission doesn’t take misuse of email as seriously as state ethics officers do,” Skinner said.
Zinke sent the email to board members after Skinner posted on his blog photographs he took of what he alleges is Zinke – who like the rest of the sheriff’s office has an less-than-amicable relationship with county bloggers – giving him the finger while driving by in the Crystal Lake Independence Day Parade.
In his email, Zinke told County Board members he was being “victimized” by Skinner and that he was holding the window frame with his middle finger, not giving Skinner or anyone else an obscene gesture. His email mentions his “candidacy” and his “run for office,” as well as his “opponent” and the race. Section 3 of the county’s ordinance prohibits intentional use of county resources for political activity, or on taxpayer-compensated time.
Gummerson told the commission Zinke sent the email on Nygren’s orders. Nygren, who sat in the audience, confirmed it after the hearing, saying the email was professional and not political in nature.
“We have a very strong and positive working relationship with the County Board, and Cal Skinner isn’t going to ruin that,” Nygren said.
Under the ethics ordinance, a finding that a Section 3 complaint is valid is forwarded to the State’s Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution. Violating Section 3 is a criminal offense punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Gummerson submitted a motion at the meeting to find Skinner guilty of filing a frivolous ethics complaint, which under the ordinance is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000. He said after the hearing that he and Zinke would consider whether to proceed.
Skinner called the move an attempt to intimidate critics of the sheriff’s office.
“Obviously, Nygren and Zinke are trying to put a chilling effect on those who would blow the whistle on using the sheriff’s office for political purposes,” Skinner said.
Despite the ruling in Zinke’s favor, the issue is sure to come up in what has already shaped up to be an acrimonious race to replace Nygren. Zinke is facing a GOP primary challenge from former Des Plaines Police Cmdr. Bill Prim, and the winner would face independent candidate Jim Harrison, a labor lawyer and former sheriff’s deputy.
Gummerson and Lee would not comment on who paid for their services, citing professional regulations forbidding them from disclosing that information.
The Ethics Commission has received three complaints, including Skinner’s, since its seating in 2005. Both were withdrawn before they could proceed.