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Filings draw lines in Ethics Commission complaint

Published: Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 5:04 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 12:07 a.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – A commission whose handling of an ethics complaint against Undersheriff Andrew Zinke is being questioned will hear Zinke’s complaint next week against the blogger who filed it.

The five-member McHenry County Ethics Commission will convene Thursday to determine whether Lakewood blogger Cal Skinner’s complaint – that an email Zinke wrote to County Board members constituted campaigning on taxpayer time and resources – was frivolous.

Zinke’s email, sent from his county account during work hours, rebuts statements and pictures posted on Skinner’s blog at www.mchenrycountyblog.com that he gave Skinner the middle finger during the Crystal Lake Independence Day Parade. The July 10 email made several references to Zinke’s campaign for sheriff. His boss, Sheriff Keith Nygren, is not running for re-election next year.

The commission ruled at a July 25 hearing that Skinner’s complaint was insufficient to warrant forwarding it to the state’s attorney for prosecution. Skinner faces a fine up to $5,000 if the commission sides with Zinke in his countercomplaint.

Zinke attorney Mark Gummerson in a six-page filing requests that Skinner be penalized, alleging that the complaint was meritless and caused harm to his client.

“On its face it is clear that the Undersheriff was merely advising the board members as to a baseless attack upon his person and his family, and the circumstances of such and was not political in nature, again as defined under the Ethics Ordinance,” Gummerson wrote.

Skinner attorney Robert Hanlon counters in a 16-page response that finding Skinner’s complaint frivolous after the commission “simply got it wrong” by dismissing it last month would silence whistleblowers and violate Skinner’s First Amendment rights.

The Ethics Commission has received three complaints since its 2005 seating, and Skinner’s was the first to go to a hearing.

“When government seeks to punish its citizens for advancing peaceable grievances, our system of government has failed and has arisen to a level of tyranny ... what Andrew Zinke is asking this commission for is an endorsement of tyranny,” Hanlon wrote.

The commission’s agenda following the hearing includes reviewing its ordinance and procedures in wake of criticism. The issue of how the commission follows its own rules and procedures plays a role in Hanlon’s defense, just as it did when Gummerson challenged the commission at Zinke’s hearing.

Hanlon alleges in his response that the commission’s own rules forbid making a motion for dismissal during the hearing, which he said invalidates Zinke’s motion for sanctions against Skinner.

Furthermore, Hanlon alleges that the commission’s rules end the case the moment a complaint is found insufficient, meaning that Zinke has no mechanism under the ordinance to pursue a claim against Skinner.

The July 25 hearing, in which the commission often appeared to be struggling with how to proceed, prompted the County Board’s Management Services Committee to pursue its own review of the ethics ordinance and the commission’s rules.

Skinner’s complaint is sure to become an issue in the 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.

What it means

The McHenry County Ethics Commission will hold a hearing on whether a complaint filed against Undersheriff Andy Zinke by Lakewood blogger Cal Skinner was frivolous.

The commission meets at 3 p.m. Thursday at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.

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