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Zinke withdraws complaint against local blogger

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 1:08 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 3:07 p.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – The attorney for Undersheriff Andy Zinke is withdrawing his client's ethics counter-complaint against blogger Cal Skinner – a complaint he alleges they never moved forward with in the first place.

In the latest wrinkle in what has already become an acrimonious race for McHenry County sheriff, the letter alleges that someone else wanted the Zinke complaint to move forward to further damage Zinke's 2014 campaign.

But county staff counter that the decision was straightforward and not political – Zinke filed a complaint and the McHenry County Ethics Commission was legally bound to move it forward.

Attorney Mark Gummerson withdrew Zinke's complaint in a Monday letter to the commission, which was scheduled to hear it Thursday afternoon. Gummerson said neither he nor Zinke will attend the hearing.

Gummerson had filed a motion for sanctions against Skinner at the July 25 hearing at which the commission dismissed Skinner's ethics complaint against Zinke. Skinner alleged that an email sent by Zinke to all 24 members of the County Board amounted to campaigning on taxpayer time and resources.

But Gummerson stated in his letter that they never moved forward with the complaint, concluding that the commission's ruling was satisfactory. Filing a frivolous complaint, as the motion alleged, is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.

"I believe that whatever request led to the Aug. 29 hearing was made for political reasons in an attempt to embroil this independent commission into a political fight," Gummerson wrote. "While we steadfastly maintain that Mr. Skinner's complaint was completely without merit, we do not want to allow this matter to be turned into a three-ring circus nor [sic] this commission to be misused."

Zinke is running to replace his boss, Sheriff Keith Nygren, who is not seeking re-election. He faces a March primary challenge from Des Plaines Police Cmdr. Bill Prim, and the winner in November would face independent candidate Jim Harrison, a labor lawyer and former sheriff’s deputy.

Skinner filed an ethics complaint against Zinke alleging that an email he sent to County Board members – disputing Skinner's blog postings and pictures alleging that Zinke gave him the middle finger at a parade – violated the county's ban on using taxpayer resources to campaign. The email was sent on Zinke's work email during work hours, and made multiple references to his candidacy for sheriff.

Gummerson called his motion for sanctions against Skinner a placeholder in case his client decided to move forward with pursuing it. But that's not the way the Ethics Commission, on advice from legal counsel from the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office, saw it.

The commission had asked whether their ruling ending Skinner's complaint also ended Zinke's motion for sanctions, said Deputy County Administrator John Labaj. Assistant State's Attorney Brandy Quance, who attended the hearing, said it did not.

"Procedurally, Mr. Gummerson filed the motion, and it was never withdrawn or dismissed," Quance said.

Skinner attorney Robert Hanlon said Tuesday that he still plans to attend Thursday's hearing, unless he receives official notice that the complaint is withdrawn.

Given complaints of how the commission handled its first-ever hearing – which the commission plans to discuss Thursday – Hanlon said he will play it safe.

Hanlon said he is glad that the complaint against Skinner is not moving forward.

"I'm pleased that candidate Zinke and attorney Gummerson realize that it's not in their best interest to continue to promulgate these claims," Hanlon said.

But to Gummerson, it was opponents of Zinke who wanted the claims promulgated. He noted that State's Attorney Lou Bianchi is openly supporting Prim's campaign.

"I'm not going to give anyone the ability to use this commission as a political pawn," Gummerson said.

Allegations of using the power of law enforcement to go after political rivals are no small subject in McHenry County, where taxpayers have spent at least $780,000 on special prosecutors whose charges against Bianchi were thrown out of court.

A McHenry County judge has since rejected calls for special prosecutors to investigate Nygren's use of a seven-point sheriff's star for political purposes, and to investigate allegations that Zinke tipped off a campaign contributor to an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

State lawmakers last year passed a law, inspired by McHenry County politics, making it harder for judges to appoint taxpayer-funded special prosecutors.

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