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County to pay $378K special prosecutor bill

Bill will drain fiscal 2013 contingency fund by 75 percent

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WOODSTOCK – Its legal options exhausted and a court order in hand, the McHenry County Board will pay the full remaining amount billed by two special prosecutors appointed to investigate vindicated State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi.

The board’s Finance and Audit Committee will vote Tuesday morning to recommend paying $378,327 to settle the bill of special prosecutors Henry Tonigan, Thomas McQueen and computer forensics firm Quest Diagnostics. The county’s legal appeal of the charges officially ended with a March 28 court order to pay the bill.

The order comes from McHenry County Judge Gordon Graham, who appointed Tonigan and McQueen four years ago. The bill includes almost $29,000 in interest – a 6 percent annual interest and a per diem interest for every day the bill goes unpaid.

County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, said she is not happy with paying the bill, but said she is satisfied the affair resulted in a new law that curtails judges’ ability to appoint special prosecutors – a county judge last year rejected two other special prosecutor requests.

“What I’m satisfied with is that our legislative delegation was able to pass some restrictions on how special prosecutors can be employed and the cost,” Hill said. “This isn’t a good day for McHenry County, but these are the rules, and they’re the rules we have to play by.”

Like previous payments, the resolution before the committee takes it out of the $500,000 contingency fund, draining it for fiscal 2013 by 75 percent. However, the committee could decide to take the payment from county government’s general fund reserve, which ended fiscal 2012 with $53.2 million.

The payment will go before the full County Board next week for official approval.

This bill will bring the amount taxpayers have footed for the investigation to almost $780,000. It does not count the possibility that county taxpayers will have to pay for McQueen’s legal defense against a civil-rights lawsuit brought against him by Bianchi and his fellow acquitted defendants.

Graham appointed Tonigan and McQueen in 2009 to investigate claims by Bianchi’s former secretary that he had her do campaign work for him on taxpayer time. A special grand jury handed down 21 corruption counts against Bianchi, and six against his subsequent secretary, Joyce Synek.

Graham authorized McQueen and Tonigan to expand their investigation, which resulted in three more charges against Bianchi, and one each against state’s attorney investigators Ron Salgado and Michael McCleary.

In two bench trials in 2011, a Winnebago County judge acquitted Bianchi and Synek of all charges without the defense having to call a single witness. The judge threw out the charges against Salgado and McCleary.

The county went to court to fight the special prosecutors’ bills, arguing they should be paid $91.50 an hour based on the state’s attorney annual salary, not the $250-an-hour rate they received. However, the courts eventually sided with the special prosecutors – an appellate court ruled in their favor in September.

Of the outstanding amount, Tonigan is owed $90,126, McQueen is owed $203,297, and Quest is owed $84,904.

The county recouped $105,000 from Tonigan’s settlement of the civil-rights lawsuit filed against him and McQueen. The County Board agreed to pay $275,000 to help cover Bianchi’s and Synek’s legal fees in exchange for reimbursement should they receive damages.

The lawsuit alleges false arrest, malicious prosecution and conspiracy initiated by Bianchi’s political enemies to remove him from office. Tonigan denied culpability in agreeing to the settlement, but the lawsuit against McQueen is ongoing.

Bianchi, a Republican, ran unopposed in the 2012 primary and election to win a third four-year term.

The taxpayer-funded legal drama prompted a change in state law to prevent it from happening again.

A judge contemplating a special prosecutor now must reach out first to other public agencies to see whether they can investigate at no cost to the county. If a special prosecutor cannot be avoided, county government has the right to participate in all agreements regarding the prosecutor’s pay and has the right to an itemized list of expenses.

The new law forbids a judge from expanding the scope of a special prosecutor’s investigation without prior notice to county government.

Judges in two unrelated cases regarding conduct in the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office have rejected requests to appoint special prosecutors.

McHenry County Judge Thomas Meyer in April 2012 rejected a deputy’s request for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Sheriff Keith Nygren misused a seven-point star for political purposes.

Meyer in November rejected a request by another deputy to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Undersheriff Andrew Zinke interfered with a federal drug investigation by tipping off a local business owner.

Bianchi concluded in December that Zinke broke no laws, and a sheriff’s office internal investigation concluded in January that Zinke did not violate any procedures.

By the numbers

$378,327 – The amount that McHenry County taxpayers will have to pay to settle the bill for court-appointed special prosecutors Henry Tonigan and Thomas McQueen and the computer forensics firm they hired.

32 – The number of charges the special prosecutors brought against State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi, his secretary and two of his office’s investigators.

0 – The number of convictions that came from the investigation.

$105,000 – The amount the county recouped when Tonigan settled a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed against him by the former defendants.

2 – Requests for special prosecutors that McHenry County judges have rejected relating to the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office.

SOURCE: Northwest Herald archives

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