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County's handling of undersheriff ethics complaint questioned

Published: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 4:57 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 11:43 p.m. CDT

Criticism of how the McHenry County Ethics Commission handled its first-ever hearing is prompting some County Board members to call for a review of its guidelines.

The commission dismissed Thursday a complaint from Lakewood blogger Cal Skinner alleging that an email from Undersheriff Andrew Zinke, who is running for his retiring boss’s job, constituted illegal campaigning on taxpayer time and resources. But commission members appeared during the open-session portion to be struggling with how to proceed, and supporters on both sides alleged the uncertainty compromised their ability to get a fair hearing.

County Board member Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, said he intends to ask the Management Services Committee next month about pursuing a review in the wake of what he called an “amateurish performance” by the commission. He said he has no issue with the commission’s final decision, except for the way in which it was reached.

Walkup, an attorney, said he is one of several County Board members concerned. He did not attend last week’s hearing.

“I think if you’re going to have a quasi-judicial proceeding, which this one was, you have to follow procedures,” Walkup said.

The County Board created its ethics commission in 2004, shortly after Springfield toughened restrictions in the wake of scandals surrounding former Gov. George Ryan, and mandated that local governments create such boards to hear complaints.

But the County Board did not fill the five seats until 2005 when it received its first complaint, which was withdrawn. So was a second, unrelated complaint. Skinner’s complaint, the third, was the first to proceed to a hearing.

Skinner alleged that a July 10 email Zinke sent to County Board members – during work hours and on a county email address – violated the ethics ordinance because it made references to his campaign. Zinke sent the email to dispute allegations by Skinner that photos he took show Zinke giving the middle finger at a parade.

The hearing appeared to deviate from the commission’s established procedures, although those rules give commissioners significant latitude in how hearings are held. It also did not take the form of a traditional disciplinary hearing.

Attorneys for Zinke – Mark Gummerson and Rebecca Lee – addressed the commission during the public comment portion of the meeting, They also spoke first – the commission’s guidelines give the opportunity to speak first to the accuser.

Neither Skinner nor commission Chairman Thomas Spencer could be reached Tuesday for comment.

County Board member John Jung, who attended as the board liaison to the commission, defended its handling of the hearing. On Tuesday, he pointed out, as did several commission members during the proceedings, that it was a first.

“Four people were there who have never had to do this before,” said Jung, R-Woodstock. “I think maybe there may be a way to make some of the rules clearer, but when you have a commission that gets a complaint once every five years ... no one knows exactly how it’s supposed to go.”

But Walkup said the rules need to be clearer if the commission starts fielding more complaints from critics of the sheriff’s office, especially in the face of a new state law that makes it harder for judges to appoint special prosecutors. A judge last year rejected two requests to appoint special prosecutors to investigate alleged wrongdoing in the sheriff’s office. The new law was inspired by the hefty price tag for the special prosecution of State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi, who was acquitted on all charges.

“We may need to incorporate some clearer, blow-by-blow procedures to eliminate any guesswork,” Walkup said.

The ethics ordinance contains a provision allowing a fine of up to $5,000 for filing a frivolous complaint. Gummerson said last week that Zinke is weighing whether to file such a complaint against Skinner.

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