Sunday, November 13, 2011

Winnebago County Judge Joe McGraw Elected Chief Judge; McGraw Acquitted McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi of Criminal Charges Twice in Directed Verdicts

Winnebago County Judge Joseph McGraw, who this year ruled in favor of McHenry County State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi in two swift directed verdicts, has been elected to serve as Chief Judge for the 17th Circuit beginning Jan. 1, 2012 by an unanimous vote of circuit judges in Winnebago and Boone Counties.

Following Bianchi's first trial last March, Thomas McQueen, special prosecutor of Bianchi, requested that McGraw recuse himself because he had been paid by the Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor (ILSAAP) -- the same agency which has been involved in multiple other aspects of Bianchi's case. The Chicago Tribune quoted McGraw, "These accusations...when considered in context, do not create even the appearance of impropriety."

Undaunted by allegations of conflicts of interest, McGraw refused to step down and the following week instructed at another ILSAAP seminar held in Naperville, billing taxpayers $3,125. 

McGraw acquitted Bianchi in a second directed verdict last August. Directed verdicts, considered unusual to occur even once, allowed Bianchi defense attorney Terry Ekl to win both trials without presenting any evidence. Bianchi opted for bench trials.

McGraw, a former assistant state's attorney, has received $21,529 from ILSAAP for seminar instruction since 2005 according to state documents. Another payment of $3,125 is expected to be made by the entity for seminar work in September 2011.

ILSAAP was created to provide services to state's attorneys including appellate cases, certain drug-related cases and special prosecutions.  (725 ILCS 210)  The entity's Board of Governors is comprised of nine state's attorneys from around the state.  A 2010 photo of Bianchi standing with ILSAAP executive staff and members of the Board of Governors has been in rotation on the home page of the entity's website since early this year.

The Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct guides judges to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.

McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi's ILSAAP Connections 

McHenryLeaks/CountyLeaks was the first outlet to publish that McGraw had received roughly $20,000 from (ILSAAP) in recent years for instructing seminars. Multiple potential conflicts of interest with those associated with Bianchi and ILSAAP have been discovered by CountyLeaks in government records, many of which have never been addressed in mainstream news. (Click titles in sidebars on the right.)

McGraw was part of a three-person panel discussion on pre-trial motions with David O'Connor of Orland Park on Oct. 25, 2010 -- three days after McGraw's first hearing involving Bianchi.

O'Connor was the special prosecutor specifically requested by Bianchi in 2007 to investigate Amy Dalby, a former employee of the state's attorney's office and a key witness against Bianchi in the case before McGraw in the first trial held last March. ILSAAP training seminars are coordinated by O'Connor who has had over $150,000 in contracts with ILSAAP since 2007.

McHenry County is currently represented by ILSAAP's special prosecutor, Chuck Colburn, in oversight and objections of bills submitted by outside special prosecutors in the same cases McGraw presided.  resolution passed by the McHenry County Board in January reads that the county pays ILSAAP $30,000 annually for services to the office of the state's attorney.

From the beginning, Bianchi and the McHenry County Board had made public their preference to have ILSAAP handle any investigation of Bianchi.

The Daily Herald published on Aug. 14, 2009, "Judge: McHenry Co. Can Intervene in Special Prosecutor Request." Chuck Keeshan wrote, "...Graham balked at Bianchi's suggestion that the county use the Illinois Appellate Prosecutor's office, leaving the call up to the board instead. 'The county may or may not want to pursue this,' the judge said. 'Or they may have their own (lawyer) in mind.'"

Two weeks later, Keeshan reported in the Daily Herald that in "a letter to Graham, County Board Chairman Ken Koehler said board members discussed the case last week and their consensus was to retain the Illinois Appellate Prosecutor's office, which has agreed to represent the county free of charge." 

Bianchi's attorney, Terry Ekl, was sitting next to Colburn in the McHenry County court room on Sept. 4, 2009 when ILSAAP was intervening on petitions to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Bianchi. (Colburn signed a motion in 2008 which may have served as legal protection for another client of Ekl's.)

That morning, Colburn attempted to have the petitions dismissed until Judge Gordon Graham cut him off. Petitioner attorneys told Graham that the spokesperson for ILSAAP had simultaneously worked on Bianchi's political campaign.

After oral arguments, Graham decided to appoint a special prosecutor himself.

The ILSAAP spokesperson referred to in court that day was Reverse Spin.  A top priority for ILSAAP starting on the first day of the vendor's contract in October 2007 was to work one-on-one with Bianchi. The following month, Bianchi requested O'Connor to investigate Dalby.

Reverse Spin, who distinguish themselves as "game changers", was working simultaneously for Bianchi's political campaign in 2008 while under contract with ILSAAP. CountyLeaks revealed that Bianchi was in the Daily Herald's editorial campaign forum the day after Reverse Spin had provided tax-paid press assistance to the state's attorney according to the monthly activity report submitted by the vendor with an invoice.
Although Reverse Spin's contract with ILSAAP ended in 2009, the vendor continued to support Bianchi with damage control via Ekl following the indictments. Reverse Spin had also worked extensively with Ekl on a high-profile federal civil lawsuit involving ILSAAPLegal bills submitted to the McHenry County Board by Ekl, however, do not reflect any work by the vendor. It remains unknown who paid Reverse Spin in 2010 and 2011. Public payment of Bianchi's legal bills remains undecided.

In September 2010, ILSAAP's Board of Governors approved  an amicus curiae brief on behalf of former Edgar County State's Attorney Michael McFatridge. The brief supports public payment of McFatridge's legal bills in the before-mentioned federal civil lawsuit; Ekl serves as his attorney. Bianchi was indicted 12 days prior to this Board meeting.

While ILSAAP agreed to be a "friend of the court" supporting McFatridge's public payment of legal fees (to Ekl), it has taken an adversarial position on the bills of Bianchi's special prosecutors Henry Tonigan and Thomas McQueen.

In September, 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 to FEN that Ekl was his co-defense team member in the ongoing federal civil lawsuit nor that ILSAAP has a vested interest in this case.

First Electric Newspaper also published that Judge Graham questioned communications between ILSAAP and Ekl in a February 2011 hearing regarding ILSAAP's representation of McHenry County's financial interests in the Bianchi cases. FEN's Pete Gonigam reported on Graham's discussion of ILSAAP director Patrick Delfino, adding "Colburn said he thought Delfino had received the transcript from Bianchi defense attorney Terry Ekl. 'Obviously Mr. Ekl represents Mr. Bianchi,' said Graham.  'They're providing you information.' 'I suggest there was an ex-parte (non-public) communication,' said Graham but he didn't take that thread any further." 

House Bill Empowers ILSAAP to Investigate Future State's Attorneys
Fueled by the prosecution of Bianchi, McHenry County State Representatives Michael Tryon and Jack Franks and State Senator Althoff are close to passing HB2558, a bill they sponsored granting ILSAAP considerably more power. The bill would give state agencies including ILSAAP first dibs to future special prosecutions in Illinois, limit fees paid to special prosecutors, and allow counties to participate in the scope of investigations by a special prosecutor and scrutinize their invoices.

The bill, under the inconspicuous description "Local Government-Tech", has received unanimous support in both the Illinois House and Senate to date. 

CountyLeaks asks:

Exactly what is McGraw's definition of the appearance of impropriety?

As a seminar coordinator for ILSAAP, did O'Connor extend the invitation to McGraw to be a paid instructor? If yes, how was it ethical for Amy Dalby's prosecutor to be doing this and for Judge McGraw to accept? Isn't it remotely problematic that O'Connor and McGraw were on the same panel of seminar together three days after McGraw's first hearing together on Bianchi?

Does the McHenry County Board care at all about all the conflicts of interest among ILSAAP, McGraw, Bianchi, Ekl, O'Connor and Reverse Spin? Does anyone?

If the McHenry County Board pays Terry Ekl, will the Board also pay the attorney's fees of Amy Dalby? Remember her? The felony charges against her were so weak, they were dropped immediately... 

Is ILSAAP pulling all the stops in McHenry County to create the legislative milestone of HB2558 giving themselves more power? Is it an abuse of power and improper for them to use ongoing litigation to achieve this goal, after all, the bill is sponsored by legislators from McHenry County?

Reverse Spin lists among its specialties: setting up and running grassroots campaigns. Did the proprietors of Reverse Spin play any role in urging Bianchi supporters to write letters to the editor and to legislators which would initiate HB2558?

Following is the state voucher showing a $3,125 payment to Judge Joseph McGraw from ILSAAP for seminar work the week after he refused to step down from the second Bianchi case.  To enlarge, click or double-click the image: