Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Whose Side Is He On? Prominent Illinois Press Attorney Donald Craven Worked for the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor

Well-known Illinois media attorney Donald Craven received over $50,000 from ILSAAP starting in December 2008. During this time, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez was embroiled in a nationally-publicized subpoena dispute with the Medill Innocence Project and Northwestern Prof. David Protess. Medill and Protess were also targets of a smear campaign in an ongoing wrongful conviction lawsuit. State records show Craven performed legal services for ILSAAP in this same lawsuit.

Illinois media attorney Donald Craven of Springfield was paid $51,300 by the Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor (ILSAAP) for roughly 250 hours of legal services from December 2008 through June 2010. ILSAAP was created to provide services to state's attorneys including appellate cases, certain drug-related cases and special prosecutions. (725 ILCS 210) 

Craven serves as general counsel to the Illinois Press Association, the Illinois Broadcasters Association and the Illinois News Broadcasters Association. According to his website, his expertise includes subpoenas compelling journalists to testify and turn over notes, tapes and photographs that were not published or broadcast.

While Craven worked for ILSAAP, Cook County State's Attorney and ILSAAP Board of Governors member Anita Alvarez was embroiled in a subpoena dispute with the Medill Innocence Project and Prof. David Protess over notes and other materials related to the Northwestern students' investigation of Anthony McKinney. McKinney had been convicted in a 1978 shotgun slaying in Harvey. Briefs submitted by Alvarez' office contained legal arguments with multiple citations of media law.

Medill has investigated over 50 cases, leading to the exoneration of 12 people -- five of whom had been sentenced to death. New York Times media writer David Carr wrote, "The students who worked on the McKinney case were probably not expecting a thank-you note from prosecutors, but they weren’t expecting a subpoena either."

Craven was quoted in news articles regarding this nationally publicized tug-of-war, including the Chicago Tribune"They're either trying to undermine the investigation, or they're trying to undermine the entire project," and the New York Times: "Take to its logical conclusion, what they're trying to do is dismantle the project."

While he was publicly supporting the Medill Innocence Project, Craven was receiving payments from ILSAAP. This entity shares interests with DuPage County defense attorneys and a former ILSAAP vendor who earlier had targeted Medill and Protess in a smear campaign in the ongoing federal civil lawsuits of Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock.

Vouchers state that Craven's work during this period pertained to the "Steidl case" and "legal services rendered in various cases". It remains unknown what projects Craven may have performed for ILSAAP; reportedly a portion of his work was representing an ILSAAP special prosecutor in the Stiedl/Whitlock case. Peaks of services rendered in Craven's invoices raise questions about what those "various cases" might be. (see timeline below)

ILSAAP has supported state's attorneys on a number of projects in recent years with potential conflicts of interest, including cases of Steidl and Whitlock. This support includes hiring outside firms to perform enigmatic tasks for state's attorneys on high-profile cases without any scrutiny or even knowledge of county government. (see right side bar)

Craven has pursued access to public records under FOIA and to court records under the First Amendment. Ironically, the public may never learn what services he rendered for ILSAAP. The Illinois Attorney General's office interprets that the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) limits access to information on tax-paid legal services to government entities citing attorney-client privilege. 

Given Craven's background as the go-to attorney for journalists up against prosecutors' subpoenas, working for a state entity assisting state's attorneys could be described as an unusual change of hats.

Two amicus curiae "friend of the court" briefs were filed on behalf of Medill in January 2010 -- one representing 18 major media organizations from around the country and another representing four. Illinois media associations in Medill's own backyard represented by Craven, however, were not among the signatories.

McKinney has remained in prison throughout the subpoena dispute beginning May 2009. He has been imprisoned nearly 33 years.

Smear Campaign Against Medill Innocence Project and Prof. David Protess in On-Going Stiedl/Whitlock Federal Civil Lawsuit

Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock were convicted for the 1986 double homicide of Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris, IL Based on new evidence, the two men were eventually released. Steidl, who had been sentenced to death row, served 17 years in prison; Whitlock served nearly 21 years.

An investigation by Protess' Medill students played a significant role in their release. Medill received national recognition in the CBS 48 Hours episode, "The Long Road", which first aired in May 2000. The program was updated and aired again following the releases of Steidl and Whitlock.

Not everyone was pleased with the program, nor the work of Medill and its journalism professor, particularly a wealthy Paris businessman whose name was mentioned in the broadcast. Karen Rhoads had told her family about what she had witnessed in the parking lot at a factory owned by the businessman shortly before she and her husband were brutally murdered -- a lead repeatedly ignored by the local law enforcement including the former Edgar County state's attorney.

Steidl and Whitlock had gone to the FBI with information on the businessman and the state's attorney prior to the double homicide. The FBI ended their investigation when the informants were charged with the Rhoads murders.

After Steidl filed a federal civil lawsuit in 2005 for his conviction (Whitlock still had not been released at the time), the businessman hired a two-man team for damage control who would later form the Wheaton, IL-based company, Reverse Spin. The two men met while employed at the executive office of former IL Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan. One had a background in public relations while the other, a Paris native who reportedly knew the businessman, was an attorney. For a while, the businessman was paying at least one of these men $8,000 per month.

The two men teamed up with defense attorneys involved with the lawsuit -- Terry Ekl and James Sotos of DuPage County. A court exhibit in this lawsuit features email correspondence among these individuals. Page after page, a primary goal was to discredit Protess.

Discrediting Protess would achieve crucial objectives. It could provide legal protection for a defendant or defendants in the ongoing lawsuit and any possible criminal investigation. With Protess' work disparaged, a cloud of doubt could continue to hang over Steidl and Whitlock, preventing the question: Who really was behind the murders? Most of all, it had the potential to bring the Medill Innocence Project to its knees, perhaps impacting similar projects around the country. Legislative milestones benefiting prosecutors and obstructing journalists were certain to follow. Abolishing the death penalty in Illinois was still not a done deal.

The damage controllers focused on CBS' 48 Hours which had previously broadcast the name of the Paris businessman and was about to update the original episode. A letter was sent to the network threatening "vigorous legal reaction" if the show implied that the businessman had any involvement with the crime. The letter continued, "The real story here is that those who want to set Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock free are churning up a delusional subplot that is smearing a man with not only a clean record but a remarkable one in the manufacturing world."

In what Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn described as "an unlikely role for crusaders", Steidl/Whitlock federal civil lawsuit's defense team Ekl and Sotos reached out to inmate, Alstory Simon. Simon had confessed on videotape to having murdered two people in 1982, a crime for which Anthony Porter was then sentenced to die. Simon was now claiming he was innocent.

Zorn wrote, "...Simon's claims of innocence directly attacked the integrity of two men who have been famously active in investigating and publicizing cases of wrongful conviction: Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and private investigator Paul Ciolino, who cracked the Porter case. And they indirectly attacked (George) Ryan and all the lawyers, activists and journalists, including me, who frequently cite the Porter case as an example of the death penalty's fatal flaw."

Another letter was sent to CBS with a copy of a court pleading claiming that Protess had "framed an innocent man" to gain exoneration of Porter.

Any progress to disgrace Protess was postponed in 2008 when the U.S. Judge Harold Baker ordered that correspondence of the damage control team be turned over after one of the individuals involved had shared documents that were purported to be protected under attorney-client privilege with a downstate journalist.

At the time, Reverse Spin was under contract with ILSAAP; the vendor's work with the businessman was never mentioned in ILSAAP Board of Governors minutes as a potential conflict of interest when the contract was renewed. One email from the damage controllers to ILSAAP boasted that they had managed to prevent the businessman's name from being disclosed in the CBS 48 Hours update of Whitlock's release. The email also mentioned being paid that month by the businessman for the project. This concludes that the vendor was simultaneously being paid by the businessman and ILSAAP, and that apparently, ILSAAP was fine with the arrangement.

Later in 2008, Craven began working for ILSAAP, reportedly to defend a special prosecutor whose name had been included in emails.

Further assignments of the damage controllers to discredit Protess were probably no longer necessary once the Cook County state's attorney's office presented their subpoena, yet they held fast to their convictions. Following the judge's ruling last week ordering Medill and Protess to turn over emails, the former vendor Tweeted: Sympathetic Chicago Magazine writer tries to extricate former NU professor Protess from scandal but fails miserably.

Timeline of the Cook County's Subpoena of Medill Innocence Project and Don Craven's Invoices for ILSAAP

Oct. 29, 2008  Bluhm Legal Clinic files a post-conviction petition had been filed on behalf of Anthony McKinney seeking to vacate the conviction or order a new trial.  

Nov. 21, 2008  Chicago Sun-Times publishes lead editorial, "Alvarez Should Speed Justice for McKinney". The editorial read, "During her campaign for Cook County state's attorney, Anita Alvarez called the subject of abusive cops beating witnesses for confessions 'an issue we must stay on top of' and 'a top priority.' When Alvarez takes office next month, a test case will be waiting. Police brutality looks to have played a role in Anthony McKinney's conviction..."

Nov. 29, 2008  Chicago Sun-Times publishes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maurice Possley's article on McKinney "The Fight for His Life".

Dec. 1, 2008  Anita Alvarez takes oath of office -- the first female and first Hispanic Cook County state's attorney.

Dec. 1, 2008  Craven begins work for ILSAAP on the "Steidl case".

Apr. 6, 2009  Craven signs $10,000 contract with ILSAAP.

May 12-28, 2009  Craven charges ILSAAP for unknown project totaling $450.

May 20, 2009  Cook County State's Attorney's office files a subpoena for materials related to Medill's investigation of the McKinney case, including notes, students' grades and all electronic communication. Prosecutors had contended that much of the evidence developed by the Medill Innocence Project should be barred from the hearing on McKinney.

June 30, 2009  Craven signs second $10,000 contract with ILSAAP.

July - August 2009  Craven charges ILSAAP for "legal services rendered in various cases and depositions" totaling $7,525.

July 7, 2009  McKinney's lawyers from the Center on Wrongful Convictions file brief challenging the prosecutors' claim. Citing statutory and case law, the Center's brief asserted that "the state's objections to evidence directly bearing on [Anthony McKinney's] claim of innocence are inconsistent with the ends of justice."

Aug. 13, 2009  Attorneys for Medill file a brief seeking to quash the subpoena on the grounds of reporter's privilege, relevance and privacy, invoking protections under the Illinois shield law for journalists.

Sept. 9, 2009 - Sept. 24, 2009  Craven charges ILSAAP for "legal services rendered in various cases and depositions" 
totaling $3,550.

Sept. 14, 2009  The state replies to Medill brief.

Oct. 21, 2009  The Chicago Tribune runs the editorial, "Alvarez' Overkill", reading, "The prosecutors are overreaching, wielding this subpoena to send an unsubtle message to these students and other journalists: Back off. Don't make waves. You're embarrassing us."

November 2009  Craven charges ILSAAP for "legal services rendered in various cases and depositions" totaling $2,150.

Nov. 10, 2009  Cook County files a 54-page brief with fresh allegations against former Medill students, including that cash had been given to witnesses. 

December 2009  Craven charges ILSAAP for "legal services rendered in various cases and depositions" totaling $1,100.

January 2010  Craven charges ILSAAP for "legal services rendered in various cases" totaling $2,400.

Jan. 8, 2010  Over a dozen media organizations from around the country file an amicus curiae "friend of the court" brief on behalf of Medill. 

Jan. 11, 2010  Attorneys for Medill file a brief seeking to quash the subpoena. A second amicus curiae "friend of the court" brief from media organizations is filed.

February 2010  Craven charges ILSAAP for "legal services rendered in various cases" totaling $10,500.

Feb. 10, 2010  Cook County files their response to Medill's brief.

March 2010  Craven charges ILSAAP for "legal services rendered in various cases" totaling $7,950.

Mar. 10, 2010  Oral arguments scheduled.
CountyLeaks asks:

Is the current smear campaign against Medill and Protess the unfinished work of the previous smear using more powerful, tax-paid muscle?

Why did ILSAAP require the services of a prominent press attorney with expertise in subpoenas compelling journalists to testify and turn over notes, tapes and photographs that were not published or broadcast? Why was this attorney providing them legal services at the same time the Cook County state's attorney and ILSAAP Board of Governors member happened to initiate a subpoena war against student journalists to turn over notes and other materials?

Why did ILSAAP have Reverse Spin -- the vendor who had participated in the orchestrated smear campaign of Protess in the ongoing Steidl/Whitlock lawsuit -- under contract at the same time Cook County filed the subpoena of Medill and Protess? Was Reverse Spin still feeling the sting of the court order to turn over their emails in this lawsuit? Did it provide inspiration?

Why does any government entity require the services of game changers? Is this a wise use of tax dollars, especially during these economic times?

Why, of all projects at ILSAAP, was Craven providing legal services in the same lawsuit Reverse Spin had targeted Protess? Why was ILSAAP corresponding with defense attorneys in this lawsuit, especially while they maintain that Steidl and Whitlock should remain perpetual suspects? Isn't this a significant conflict of interest?

What were the "various cases" Craven rendered legal services for ILSAAP?

Why wasn't Craven's name brought up in the ILSAAP Board of Governors minutes? What was the decision-making process of hiring him?

Was Alvarez' ultimate goal to find truth? Or was it, in Craven's foreboding words, to "dismantle the project"?

Was ILSAAP sick and tired of college kids making their state's attorneys look bad?

Are over-worked and thinly-stretched assistant state's attorneys for Cook County typically good at constructing compelling and winning arguments involving loopholes for subpoenas of journalists?

Why didn't the Illinois press associations represented by Craven join media organizations from around the country to support Medill? After all, these associations are from Medill's home turf...

Following are state records showing payments and contracts between ILSAAP and attorney Donald Craven. To enlarge, click or double-click the image: