Thursday, April 4, 2013

Who is CountyLeaks?

I work alone.

This blog is my view of the world.

I don't work as part of any company, firm, organization or party. The only approval I seek is my own.

I have never been paid for work associated with this blog.

I am an incurable insomniac. Other insomniacs may choose to count sheep, drink warm milk or watch TV. I choose to read public records, particularly government documents. To scrutinize documents and make crucial connections, it helps to work without any distractions when the rest of the world is asleep.

Journalist I.F. Stone believed that everything we need to know can be found in public records. He would devote endless hours alone in musty basements devouring documents searching for contradictions to the official line. Why waste time hunting down people for a quote or testimony who may or may not tell the truth? I'm not a journalist, yet I relate strongly to Stone's style. And once you get started extricating, it's difficult to stop. It's like a treasure hunt. Imagine if Stone had the internet?

I am anonymous because... 

...I want readers to focus on the message, not me. Most of the people I write about have the kill-the-messenger mentality because that's all they've got. They simply cannot refute the facts backed with documentation. As I approach the two-year anniversary of blogging, no one has ever contacted me to refute the content, publicly or privately.

Due to the highly sensitive nature my material involving corruption of high-level law enforcement in Illinois and those associated with it, my concern for potential retaliation and threats is justified. Unlike the people I write about, I'm not protected by power, influence and money. However, I do have truth. Truth trumps all. Truth paralyzes my subject matter.

I have called my blogs McHenryLeaks and CountyLeaks in an attempt to be catchy. The information is actually not a leak because nothing is classified. Instead, it is a presentation of public records. Readers consider them leaks because they're unaware this information is even out there.

Lately reporters and readers have been asking a lot about my identity and motives. At first I never thought anyone would be interested in my blog, let alone the insomniac, so I never bothered doing a profile. Two years and tens of thousands of hits from over 50 countries later, I'm finally convinced that people are interested. Who in Moldova was reading CountyLeaks today?

Here's how it all started...

One night (morning would be more accurate because it was around 3 am) in August 2008, I read an astonishing article in the local news by Dusty Rhodes entitled "Public Relations Gone Awry". Her information was based from court records, which naturally peaked my interest. In 1986, newlywed couple Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris, Ill. were brutally murdered in their bed. Two men who had been wrongfully convicted for those murders filed a federal lawsuit alleging conspiracy by law enforcement. 

What made this story much different than other wrongful conviction cases was the retaliation against a whistle blower and key witness -- former Illinois State Police Lieutenant Michale Callahan -- and David Protess of Medill's Innocence Project. This retaliation included a smear campaign orchestrated by a public relations spinner with defense attorneys from DuPage County in the wrongful conviction lawsuit. The spinner had a curious collection of clientele and employers -- top law enforcers of Illinois AND a businessman who had been Karen Rhoads' boss at the time of the murders. 

The businessman, reportedly worth $75 million, was once considered a person of interest in the case (and would be featured prominently in Callahan's book, Too Politically Sensitive, a year later). The spinner's job was to deflect media attention away from the businessman, as people were beginning to wonder who was actually behind the murders due to the release of the two convicted men from prison and their civil lawsuits. The businessman had paid the spinner $8,000 per month.

I decided to keep a close watch on this spinner and those associated with him.

Later, a simple Google search of the spinner's name provided a link to 2007 minutes from the Board of Governors of the Illinois State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor's office in Springfield. I read the minutes, rubbed my eyes, and reread them. Incredibly, the minutes revealed that the spinner was under contract with ILSAAP and that the person who strongly advocated for the contract was BOG's vice chairman, Joe Birkett. Birkett, at that time, was the DuPage County State's Attorney. According to the copious minutes, Birkett didn't mention that he had paid this spinner for political work on his state-wide campaign the previous year for lieutenant governor and might be hiring him again soon. 

On-line searches totaling all of 10 minutes showed that the spinner was simultaneously working for ILSAAP, the political campaigns of Birkett and McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi, the DuPage County Election Commission, and the Paris businessman. ILSAAP was also keeping a cloud of doubt over the two men wrongfully convicted of the Rhoads murders, stating that they were still being investigated -- effectively serving as protection for the defendants in the wrongful conviction lawsuit.


In 2009, I came across the story of Amy Dalby, a college kid who had once worked for Bianchi in McHenry County. She had been charged with six felony counts for downloading some files proving that she had performed political work for her boss while working at the county. I was struck by the prosecution against this young woman, never realizing there was any connection to the spinner or anything else I had read. Again, I Googled. The special prosecutor, David O'Connor, had worked for ILSAAP. 

Whenever asked what ILSAAP is, my short answer is: It's a club for state's attorneys. All the state's attorneys I've written about had close ties with "the club".

So, I visited ILSAAP's website. Sure enough, O'Connor's name popped up again and again as their seminar coordinator. I saw this as a conflict, especially after reading reports that Bianchi had specifically asked for O'Connor to lead the investigation of Dalby. Charges against Dalby were dropped quickly and she petitioned the court for a special prosecutor to investigate her former boss, McHenry County State's Attorney Bianchi. 

Not your typical college kid...

I soon learned that the spinner working against Callahan, Protess and the Medill Innocence Project, had been actively working for Bianchi. This time, the spinner was being paid by ILSAAP. This time, the smear had been against a college kid. 

I kept digging.

I began reading about the art of spinning the law and trying cases in the court of public opinion. One phrase for it is game changing... 

A year later, Bianchi was indicted. Judge Joseph McGraw of Winnebago County had been appointed to preside. His name sounded familiar. Another search on ILSAAP's website showed that McGraw had participated in seminars coordinated by O'Connor, even within the same panel as O'Connor. The "leaks" were coming straight from the agency's own website.

It really bothered me that the judge, Dalby's prosecutor, the spinner, the defense attorney and Bianchi himself all had close ties with Club ILSAAP. It really bothered me that ILSAAP's own special prosecutor, Chuck Colburn, had intervened to request that ILSAAP conduct the investigation of Bianchi, instead of another court-appointed special prosecutor. How long would it have taken ILSAAP to have dismissed the investigation of Bianchi? Five minutes?

And, it really bothered me that ILSAAP had prepared an an amicus curiae "friend of the court" brief on behalf a former state's attorney who was a defendant in the ongoing wrongful conviction lawsuit for public payment of his legal fees to...Bianchi's attorney. Vice Chairman Birkett led this action; the brief was prepared by DuPage County Asst. State's Attorney Lisa Hoffman.

As the case against Bianchi progressed and became public, the prosecution and the media looked at it from a different perspective. They all stayed within the McHenry County border. I looked more broadly to DuPage, Edgar and Winnebago counties and Springfield. 

I believed Bianchi had a lot of help from the outside starting in August 2007 -- that's when the defense of Bianchi had actually begun, according to my interpretation of public records. That's when ILSAAP held a special meeting and discussed contracting the spinner. And when ILSAAP stopped contracting the spinner in 2009, Bianchi's attorney hired him directly. 

What I saw was terrifying. To me, the story wasn't just about some campaign work done at a government office. To me, the story was about a conspiracy of high-level officials and law enforcers around the state protecting one of their own, and if that meant putting a college kid in prison, so be it. If that meant keeping a prime suspect of a horrific double homicide in Edgar County free, so be it.

After sitting on all this information for several years, I was ready to burst. I was compelled to write and to fill the void. I repeated a verse to myself I had taught to my Sunday School class: And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. John 8:32. 

I figured if this college kid had the courage to speak truth to power, the least I could do was blog. So while everyone was sleeping, I wrote and wrote.

Shortly after publication, it was a surprise to first see my blog show up in my Google email alert for stories on Bianchi and Dalby. Others must have received similar news alerts, as the hits were rising in the blog stats. This was all new territory to me. I wondered who might be reading it and what they were thinking. I soon learned.

In April 2011, the media reported that special prosecutors against Bianchi asked Judge McGraw to step down from the upcoming second trial, alleging the appearance of impropriety. The source of this information? McHenryLeaks. I bolted from my computer chair and stared down at the news report on the screen in disbelief...probably mouth-breathing. Imagine how surreal it was for me to be researching quietly and alone for years, to throw together just a little information on my computer, to click "publish", to wait in silence, and to behold such a thing.

The outcome wasn't what I expected. It never is. All I can do is put the information out there, wait and wonder. 

The public records and government documents never change.