Monday, October 10, 2011

Same Tech Firm Examined Computers in High-Profile Cases Involving McHenry and Edgar Counties, Unreported Ties with DuPage County Brotherhood

McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi requested Protek, a high-tech-crime investigative firm, to search a computer hard-drive in October 2007 -- the beginning of a long saga of investigations and special prosecutions. Protek also had a role in retrieving emails of media consultants Reverse Spin in response to a court order in the ongoing Steidl-Whitlock federal civil lawsuit. Attorney Terry Ekl of DuPage County represents defendants in both cases.  

Protek's co-owner is a former DuPage County Assistant State's Attorney, the former first chief of the High Technology Crimes Bureau of the Illinois Attorney General's Office, and former counsel at Ekl's firm.  

Protek International, Inc., a Clarendon Hills-based firm specializing in investigations and advisory services related to cyber crime, inspected evidence from computer hard drives -- one in 2007, eventually becoming ground zero in several McHenry County special prosecutions, and the other in 2008, revealing an elaborate behind-the-scenes smear campaign against perceived threats in the Steidl-Whitlock federal civil lawsuits, including Medill Innocence Project and its former director, Prof. David Protess.

Protek's co-owner Keith Chval is a former assistant state's attorney in DuPage County from 1989 through 1996 under Jim Ryan and Joe Birkett. Chval then began working again for Ryan at the Illinois Attorney General's Office's High Technology Crimes Bureau, later holding the position of first chief. When he established Protek in 2005, he joined the law firm of Connolly, Ekl & Williams, P.C., also located in Clarendon Hills at that time. Terry Ekl represents defendants in theses cases involving Protek.

Protek & McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi 

In October 2007, McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi hired Protek to examine the contents of a hard drive in his office following a tip. "An unnamed informant" phoned the office's chief investigator Ron Salgado that a female employee "close to Bianchi" had transferred office computer files onto a jump or zip drive, accounts the article Daily Herald's Chuck Keeshan wrote after reviewing court records, "Bianchi's Office Knew of Files". Salgado was also Bianchi's campaign manager. 

Bianchi hired and paid Protek directly to analyze a hard drive from his office, instead of the conventional approach of going through the state's attorney's office. Later Bianchi sent the hard drive to the Illinois State Police and specifically requested Orland Park attorney David O'Connor be appointed special prosecutor to investigate the matter.

In 2009, Bianchi's former administrative assistant, Amy Dalby, was indicted on six felony charges related to transferring computer files. The charges were dropped shortly after Dalby told the media that her motive in downloading the files was to prove she had been asked to perform political campaign work for Bianchi. The college student claimed she was unaware that her assignments were prohibited by law until she was about to leave her position.

Dalby, in turn, requested a special prosecutor to investigate Bianchi. 

Chval testified in Bianchi's first trial last March. The Northwest Herald's Sarah Sutschek reported, "Special prosecutor Thomas McQueen said that Chval showed that Bianchi wanted to see what was on the hard drive and 'see if there's trouble down the road'." Ekl asked to have Chval's testimony stricken, stating it wasn't related to the charges. Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Joseph McGraw threw it out and acquitted Bianchi in a directed verdict.

The timing of Protek's hiring raises questions about the decision of the Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor (ILSAAP) to assign their media consultant/spokesperson, Dan Curry of Curry Public Strategies of DuPage County, to begin working extensively one-on-one with Bianchi on Oct. 1, 2007 -- two days prior to the alleged informant phone call. 

Protek & Court Exhibit Regarding Reverse Spin in Steidl-Whitlock Lawsuit

Twenty-five years ago, newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris, IL were brutally murdered. Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock were convicted for the crime in 1987, based on testimony from two dubious witnesses. After years legal wrangling, new evidence allowed the men to be released from prison; Steidl in 2004 and Whitlock in 2008. 

Steidl was the first to file a federal civil lawsuit claiming that he was framed in a conspiracy by individuals once employed at the Edgar County State's Attorney's office, the City of Paris and the Illinois State Police.

Shortly after Steidl filed in 2005, Curry Public Strategies was hired by a wealthy businessman from Paris for pre-emptive damage control. The businessman was once considered a person of interest in the case, but apparently never investigated. Publicity surrounding the prisoners' release and the lawsuit was generating the question: Who really was behind the murders?

Dan Curry was introduced to the businessman by attorney John Pearman, originally from Paris.

Chval, Curry and Pearman had worked in high-ranking positions at the Illinois Attorney General's Office beginning in the 1990s; Chval was first chief of the High Technology Crimes Bureau, Curry was Ryan's spokesperson, and Pearman was the chief of policy and legislative affairs. Curry and Pearman had also worked together on Jim Ryan's 2002 gubernatorial race.

Damage control for the Paris businessman coincided with goals of defense attorneys hired to fight the federal civil lawsuit, including Ekl, James Sotos of Itasca and Iain Johnston of Chicago. Curry Public Strategies constructed an elaborate smear campaign to combat high-profile individuals supporting Steidl and Whitlock, comprising of the Medill Innocence Project, its former director Prof. David Protess, former Illinois State Police investigator Michale Callahan and others.

A legal/PR strike force had been created.

The strategy's success was spotty and dwindled within a few years. It all may have gone unnoticed in the grand scheme of a federal civil lawsuit, had Curry Public Strategies not shared some emails and work product with a journalist, breaking attorney-client privilege. Information gathered by private investigators Delorto, Mazzola & Assoc. of DuPage County which had been denied to plaintiffs' attorneys was in the mix.

Following a six-month motion war starting in January 2008, Curry "produced two compact discs containing thousands of pages of electronic and paper documents related to his work for Robert Morgan and his communications, inter alia, with Defendants' counsel Terry Ekl, James Sotos, Elizabeth Ekl, and Iain Johnston, media representatives, Robert Morgan and his associates, and ISP and State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutors", according to a 126-page court exhibit filed in August 2008 available on-line via PACER. (05-cv-02127 #214)

Curry Public Strategies' emails contained within this exhibit have "Protek" on the header, showing that Chval's firm had been authorized to mine the data from the hard drive.

It is unknown if the multiple associations between the tech firm and the subject matter had been disclosed to plaintiffs' attorneys.

Additional Information 

In January 2008, Curry Public Strategies had morphed into Reverse Spin, headquartered in DuPage County. Curry and Pearman are partners at the firm, distinguishing themselves as "game changers".

Curry Public Strategies/Reverse Spin had been the contracted media consultants/spokespersons for ILSAAP from 2007 through 2009. Board of Governors Vice Chairman Joe Birkett steered these ILSAAP contracts to his political consultants. Birkett made the motion to renew Reverse Spin's contract with the Agency in September 2008. Board minutes make no mention of disclosures of potential conflicts of interest with the vendor. 

Reverse Spin was working for the re-election of Bianchi in 2008, as well as Birkett's campaign for state-wide office. In 2009, Reverse Spin teamed up a second time on Jim Ryan's gubernatorial campaign. Protek International's lone political contribution listed on the Illinois State Board of Elections website is $250 in January 2010 for Friends of Jim Ryan.

After working one-on-one for months with Bianchi via ILSAAP, Reverse Spin provided public relations support for Ekl's defense of Bianchi, an arrangement which may be ongoing. However, Reverse Spin's fee is not listed on Ekl's recent bill presented to McHenry County. 

Last month, the First Electric Newspaper featured quotes on Bianchi's legal bills by Iain Johnston. The article identified Johnston as a "John Marshall Law School Adjunct Professor and Illinois Special Assistant Attorney General". Johnston told FEN that another agency, such as the Illinois Attorney General's office or ILSAAP, might foot the bill. Apparently Johnston did not disclose that Ekl was his co-defense team member for the Steidl-Whitlock case. 

CountyLeaks Asks: 

Is public trust ever a consideration on the issues raised on CountyLeaks?

Legal scholars, were any conflicts of interest laid out here? If yes, how many?

Was it improper for Bianchi to personally hire Protek to peek under the hood of a certain computer hard drive prior to handing it over to the Illinois State Police? If this were a legitimate project, why didn't the state's attorney's office hire Protek and pay for this service? Just because the judge threw out the Protek testimony per Ekl's request and Bianchi was acquitted, is it still wrong?

Why was it wrong for a college kid to download some files from her work computer, yet okay for the state's attorney to personally hire a private tech firm to have the hard drive removed and analyzed? Why was the college kid held to higher standards? Doesn't this make the entire investigation and prosecution of Dalby hypocritical and outrageous? 

Who referred Bianchi to use a tech company whose co-owner worked with his defense attorney's firm? Did the defense of Bianchi actually begin in 2007, the same time ILSAAP sent Curry Public Strategies to work one-on-one with him? Is this why Ekl's bill is so high?

Did the information Protek provide Bianchi allow him to develop a defense strategy, making it all about a college kid instead of himself? Would this be the classic "reverse spin"? 

Did Bianchi know about Dalby's computer files earlier than Oct. 3, 2007? If yes, could this explain why ILSAAP's Board of Governors held a special meeting to discuss hiring Curry Public Strategies in August -- two weeks prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting? Of all counties in the state, why was Curry Public Strategies sent to McHenry to work extensively with Bianchi on Oct. 1, 2007?

Were disclosures made to plaintiffs' attorneys in the Steidl-Whitlock lawsuits that the tech company that would retrieve data from Reverse Spin's hard drive was co-owned by an attorney with multiple associations with the defense team, and during the period many of the emails had been exchanged, been part of the defense team as an attorney working for Ekl's law firm?

What was the decision-making process to use Protek to siphon emails from Curry's hard drive? Who paid Protek? What is the normal procedure for hiring tech firms in civil cases?

Does this mean that if any citizen is forced to hand over a hard-drive in an legal matter, that he/she has the luxury to choose the friendly company that will perform the unpleasant task? Or must we follow different standards? 

Why did Iain Johnston of Johnston Greene, LLC provide commentary to the First Electric Newspaper about options of paying Ekl's legal fees? Didn't Johnston disclose to FEN that he is part of the defense team with Ekl and Sotos in the ongoing Steidl-Whitlock lawsuit? Who threw his name out? And why did Johnston mention ILSAAP as an option to foot the bill?

Why was DuPage County Election Commission Executive Director Bob Saar vacationing in Paris, IL *again* last week, causing him to miss the deadline on a crucial report for the DuPage County Board Chairman? Of all vacation destinations on the planet, why Edgar County? Did Saar say hello to the Reverse Spin partner John Pearman who works in that town and is contracted as the spokesperson/media consultant for the Election Commission for $3,000 per month? 

Geez...what is it with DuPage County

Following are public records of the background of Protek International, Inc. and an excerpt from a court exhibit from the Steidl-Whitlock federal civil lawsuit, (05-cv-02127 #214). To enlarge, click or double-click the image: