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Lawsuit over McHenry County sheriff's internal investigation continues

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 5:49 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 11:50 p.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – McHenry County’s undersheriff likely will be called to testify to shed light on who provided a Northwest Herald reporter with the copy of his internal investigation.

An report on an investigation into Undersheriff Andrew Zinke is at the center of a lawsuit filed by Peter Gonigam, who runs the website First Electric Newspaper.

Gonigam wants a copy of the results of the investigation, and the sheriff’s office doesn’t want to release it.

The documents in question stem from unfounded allegations that Zinke impeded a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the shipment of marijuana by tipping off a purported subject related to the DEA’s probe. The individual also was a campaign donor to Zinke’s bid for sheriff.

The sheriff’s office found Zinke had not violated the department’s general orders, and State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi determined the undersheriff broke no laws.

Gonigam, through a Freedom of Information request, asked for the internal investigation documents, but his request was denied.

He later filed the lawsuit in McHenry County, arguing that the sheriff’s office waived any possible FOIA exemption it may have previously claimed when someone in the department showed the documents to a former Northwest Herald reporter.

On the witness stand Wednesday, former reporter Sarah Strzalka testified that she inspected the report for an article. She cited reporter’s privilege laws when asked who showed it to her.

Strzalka is no longer a full-time employee of the Northwest Herald, but freelances for the newspaper. The newspaper’s Editorial Director Dan McCaleb also was called to testify. Both were represented by Shaw Media’s legal counsel Donald Craven.

On the stand, both Sheriff Keith Nygren and former Equal Employment Opportunity Officer Don Leist denied showing the documents to Strzalka. Nygren said only he and Leist had access to the report. But Leist – who once served as legal counsel on this case – testified that he handed the report over to Zinke.

That news came as a surprise to Gonigam’s attorney, Mary Gardner, who had not previously subpoenaed the undersheriff. She asked that he immediately be called to testify.

“The notion that the sheriff’s legal counsel would turn over the investigation file to the subject of the investigation is just mind boggling,” Gardner said outside the courtroom.

Attorneys for the sheriff’s office objected to calling Zinke and continuing the trial. Assistant State’s Attorney Norm Vinton said Gardner had plenty of opportunity to depose Leist before the trial, as she did the sheriff, but she never did.

“This could have been discovered months and months ago,” Vinton said.

While McHenry County Judge Thomas Meyer agreed with Vinton on that point, he continued the bench trial to October. A status date is set for Friday to determine Zinke’s availability.

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