Bianchi's attorney offers fees deal

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board is weighing a deal presented by State's Attorney Lou Bianchi's counsel to pay for his successful legal defense against corruption charges.

Under the proposal outlined by Bianchi attorney Terry Ekl, the county would pay $268,420 of Bianchi's legal fees and expenses, less than half of the cost of defending him in court. In exchange, Ekl offered the county an opportunity to recoup its expenses through a potential federal civil rights lawsuit against special prosecutors Henry Tonigan and Thomas McQueen, according to sources close to the matter.

The County Board Finance and Audit and Law and Justice committees met in closed session Tuesday evening with Ekl to discuss the proposal, an hour prior to the regular County Board meeting. Bianchi racked up $492,187 in legal fees alone, according to sources.

Ekl declined comment after the meeting, as did finance chairman Scott Breeden, R-Lakewood, and law and justice chairman Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry.

Bianchi's two-year legal drama came to an end last month after a judge threw out the last of 24 charges against him.

Under Ekl's offer, the county would pay $198,656 in legal fees, $32,000 to reimburse Bianchi for hiring a forensic computer firm, $32,890 to a law clerk who assisted in his case, and $4,874 in miscellaneous expenses.

They also would agree to pay $30,500 to cover the legal fees of Bianchi secretary Joyce Synek, who like Bianchi was indicted but cleared of charges. Synek is represented by attorney Ernest DiBenedetto, who is not part of Ekl's firm of Ekl, Williams and Provenzale.

If the county accepts the offer, Ekl proposed an arrangement by which it would get reimbursed up to the full amount from any recovery earned by Bianchi or Synek in a federal lawsuit. Ekl also offered to represent the County Board on a no-cost contingent fee basis to recover some of the $242,349 they have paid under court order to Tonigan, McQueen, and the computer forensics firm they commissioned.

McHenry County Judge Gordon Graham in September 2009 appointed the special prosecutors to investigate claims by former secretary Amy Dalby that Bianchi had her do campaign work for him on taxpayer time.

A special grand jury in September 2010 handed down 21 counts against Bianchi and six counts against Synek. The following February, the grand jury handed down three more counts against Bianchi and one each against state's attorney investigators Ron Salgado and Michael McCleary.

The cases fell apart in two bench trials before Winnebago County Judge Joseph McGraw. On March 23, he found Bianchi not guilty of the first 21 counts and found Synek not guilty of all charges against her. McGraw in June threw out the charges against Salgado and McCleary, and on Aug. 2 found Bianchi not guilty of the remaining charges against him.

In both bench trials, McGraw dismissed the charges without Ekl having to call a single witness.

The offer to recoup what has already been paid to Tonigan and McQueen likely will get the County Board's attention. Its court case to do so has hit a snag, and the county is awaiting at least seven more months of bills.

The board in April filed an appeal regarding Tonigan's and McQueen's pay, claiming they should be paid based on the annual salary of the state’s attorney, or about $166,500. That would put the hourly rate at $91.50, compared to the $250-an-hour rate they were charging.

However, both Graham and the appellate court have ruled that they do not have jurisdiction over the matter. The county is expected to re-file with the appellate court.

The county has only been billed through last November, which does not include the second indictment and both bench trials. A $69,909 bill submitted to the County Board for Tonigan and McQueen's services from August through November 2010 is on hold with the ongoing litigation.

The county has not received any special prosecutors' bills from Graham since the last bill received in March, Deputy County Administrator John Labaj said.

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