Settlement in works for McHenry County Sheriff's Office FOIA violation

McHenry County Board likely to OK six-figure settlement with Algonquin man

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board is likely to approve a six-figure settlement with an Algonquin man who sued the sheriff's office over an open records violation.

The settlement awards $104,402.96 to First Electric Newspaper Publisher Pete Gonigam, who sued the sheriff's office after it refused to turn over documents pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.

Gonigam in January 2013 sought through a FOIA request a copy of the findings of an internal investigation into former Undersheriff Andrew Zinke. Gonigam was denied the department's written findings stemming from allegations that Zinke tipped off a friend and campaign donor that the friend allegedly was the subject of a DEA investigation into a large drug shipment.

Those claims were found to be baseless, and the investigation revealed that Zinke
broke no laws and violated no department rules.

Gonigam also will get the report as part of the settlement, although names will be redacted. He plans to publish it.

The six-figure settlement is in addition to a $5,000 civil penalty McHenry County Judge Thomas Meyer granted Gonigam for what the judge said was a willful violation of the Freedom of Information Act. The civil penalty is the maximum allowable under the act.

Meyer, however, at the time stopped short of granting Gonigam access to the full report. The judge said Gonigam could have access to a summary of the report – the same portion of the report that was shown to a Northwest Herald reporter. Gonigam vowed to appeal because he wanted the full report.

"I was trapped into this," Gonigam said Monday. "I set a [settlement] price that I thought nobody in his right mind would pay. What I wanted to do was win this appeal so nobody would every have to go through this agony again."

About $80,000 of the settlement is for his attorney's fees, he said.

The settlement is pending County Board approval at its meeting Dec. 15. The settlement also indicates the sheriff's office admits no wrongdoing. The money will come from the county's general fund.

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