Ethics — in general and specifics – were on the minds of Grundy County Board members Tuesday.
On the same night the board unanimously passed, without discussion, an increase in the number of members on its state-mandated Ethics Commission from three to seven, it also authorized a special prosecutor to determine if it should sue one if its own for alleged financial improprieties.
The vote on whether to launch an investigation against county board member Frank Halpin, with an eye toward bringing a possible civil case against him, was not unanimous. Four board members – some vocally so – opposed the move, while Halpin and his fellow Democrat, Ken Iverson, were absent from the meeting.
“If people think this is a happy day for me, they’re crazy,’ noted Chairman Ron Severson, who replaced Halpin as chairman of the board when the Republicans took control of the body following the 2010 election.
That comment came before the board’s vote, as Severson explained the background of the request and how the process would unfold going forward.
“This is not the end. This is the beginning of a process,” said Severson, in noting that a positive vote by the board would authorize an agreement whereby a state’s attorney from a nearby county would look into the allegations in order to determine if a civil suit is warranted in an effort to recover money from Halpin. Kendall County has agreed to make an assistant state’s attorney available for that purpose.
“This is a freebie, except maybe some expenses that might be incurred, and those would be minimal,” Grundy County Assistant State’s Attorney Perry Rudman said.
The measure follows allegations first raised by current Board Vice Chairman David Welter more than two years ago. At that time, Welter – based on an investigation he did prior to his first being elected to the board – accused Halpin of receiving reimbursements for meetings he either did not attend or, in some cases, that did not take place.
“I really didn’t suspect him of doing anything wrong when I was looking into the pay of Mr. Halpin,” Welter recalled in casting his vote in favor of a prosecutor Tuesday. He noted he was merely investigating why the previous chairman had been paid $26,000 in a year, while Halpin was paid $71,000.
He said that, what he found, was that one board member – Halpin – instead of following procedure of turning vouchers over to the board secretary and having them countersigned “always bypassed the board secretary and took them to the treasurer himself.”
Since shortly after those allegations were first made during a county board meeting, the matter has been in the hands of the appellate prosecutor’s office. In that time, State’s Attorney Jason Helland told the board Tuesday, the appellate prosecutor has issued no written report of his findings, but did provide information to Helland verbally, which Helland then passed along to Severson without giving an opinion on a further course of action.
“I can’t discuss the merits of the case,” said Helland, who explained that, as state’s attorney, he is by statute the legal representative of every county board member and, therefore, cannot legally advise one client to take legal action against another. In short, he said, giving an opinion on the appellate prosecutor’s information poses a conflict of interest.
He did, however, note the appellate prosecutor has declined pursuing a criminal case in the matter. That office, he said, will not take on a civil matter and the Illinois Attorney General will only get involved in a civil matter if the state is involved. As a result, the use of a special prosecutor is the only option remaining, Helland said.
He also reminded the board that, unlike in a criminal case where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, in a civil trial it is only by a preponderance of the evidence – “50.1 percent more likely than not.”
Richard Joyce, who opposed the use of a special prosecutor, asked why a second special prosecutor should be retained to pursue the same matter. He asked if the findings again did not come back to the liking of certain board members if a third prosecutor would be sought.
Severson responded with a terse “no.”
“Someday we may need to stand before the public and say we spent X amount of dollars and got nothing,” Joyce said.
“It is like putting $100 in a slot machine and maybe getting back nothing except the slot machine telling us we now owe more money,” he added.
Jim Ryan, who also voted in opposition to the special prosecutor, asked if the county would be responsible for covering Halpin’s legal fees if a civil case were brought against him by the county.
“Are we going to spend $100,000 going after $10,000,” Ryan asked, noting he had heard several different amounts that Halpin is alleged to have been paid improperly.
“Mr. Halpin is afforded an attorney right over here,” Severson responded, indicating Helland and Rudman. He added that it was his understanding that if Halpin opted to use other counsel, he would be responsible for the cost.
Joyce, however, recalled an incident in the past where allegations were made against a trio of county board members, the matter was thrown out of court, and the county ended up being presented a bill to cover their legal expenses.
Other board members, in voicing support of a prosecutor, said that wrong is wrong and that even if 10 cents or $10 was the amount taken, no official should be allowed to get away with taking taxpayers’ money improperly.
“I don’t want to see someone who maybe has misappropriated funds not be held accountable,” said Vicki Geiger in casting her vote for retaining the special state’s attorney.
“We need to at least have it investigated, if not to find guilt, than innocence,” she said earlier. “When one department sees another getting away with it… it becomes a domino effect.
Once the matter came to a vote, Joyce and Ryan were joined by Ann Gill and John Galloway in voting against the special prosecutor, while 12 board members approved the move on a motion made by John Roth and seconded by Deb Warning.
It was noted Halpin was not present because, as in past years at this time, he is in Arizona.
“I want no one to prejudge anything,” Severson said. “Mr. Halpin has a presumption of innocence.”