PART 14 OF COUNTYLEAKS SERIES ON DUPAGE COUNTY FOREST PRESERVE...Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven, Part Twelve,
"MR. TATARELIS HAD THE GALL TO CROSS-EXAMINE OUR EXPERT WITNESSES! ...IT'S INSULTING!" thundered Patrick Collins last Wednesday while pointing at Assistant State's Attorney Ken Tatarelis, during closing arguments of DuPage's eight-day criminal trial in Wheaton before Judge Liam Brennan.
The case involves two former employees of the DuPage County Forest Preserve's IT Department, Mark McDonald and David Tepper, and the former IT vendor, Arif Mahmood. The Forest Preserve conducted a secret investigation of the men in 2011 and later brought their findings to authorities. In 2012, the men were charged with a collective 317 felony indictments. (McDonald's trial was rescheduled to Oct. 22nd due to health issues.) Judge Brennan's decision for Tepper and Mahmood is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 1st, at 9 am.
Collins, a former federal prosecutor now a defense attorney, was referring to three IT expert forensic witnesses testifying on behalf of his client, Mahmood, who was originally charged with 40 felony counts and was still left with two. Expert witnesses had analyzed data in Mahmood's possession, and what was left at Forest Preserve headquarters which turned out to be...nothing.
Deliberate and Secret Destruction of Public Records Admitted in Court Room
The cause of Collins' outburst was that the State had never sought to preserve evidence at the Forest Preserve, yet grilled the IT witnesses on the scraps left behind. These witnesses cost the defense tens of thousands of dollars.
There wasn't any computer data left at the Forest Preserve for the State to preserve by the time they got the case.
Eighteen months ago, CountyLeaks reported the data on Mahmood's equipment -- the federally-mandated off-site back-up of the Forest Preserve's computer data -- was likely destroyed deliberately shortly after the Forest Preserve's hired contractor for the covert internal investigation, JRM Consulting, Inc., picked up the equipment on Nov. 9, 2011. Invoices submitted by JRM to the Forest Preserve show subcontractors billing extensive work immediately after the transition, prior to the findings going to the State's Attorney on Nov. 21st. The State's witness, a JRM subcontractor, admitted during the trial that data had been erased.
In a 2013 brief, Collins wrote: Quite simply, the FPDDC's failure to preserve the most crucial evidence in the case has destroyed any meaningful opportunity Mahmood has to defend himself against the charges alleged.
Even Judge Brennan had remarked in a recent hearing that failure of making a mirror image of the data as "flabbergasting". The Illinois Supreme Court announced on Nov. 25, 2014 that Brennan was moving to head the Circuit Court's felony division. Brennan replaced Judge Blanche Fawell who had been presiding over the IT case for over two years. During this time, Former Chief Judge John Elsner was negotiating to become the Forest Preserve's contracted attorney for $150,000 upon his retirement on Nov. 28th; on Dec. 2nd, his new contract was confirmed.
The State apparently didn't mind about records preservation. In January 2012 -- while the State's Attorney was conducting their criminal investigation -- the Forest Preserve Board authorized the destruction of 815 cubic feet of records.
Former Forest Preserve President Duilio "Dewey" Pierotti Testified He did NOT TRUST Executive Director Brent Manning
The deliberate destruction of evidence by the Forest Preserve was perhaps the most compelling revelation of the trial. Another unveiling over the past two weeks was that former Forest Preserve President Duilio "Dewey" Pierotti did not trust his former executive director, Brent Manning. So much so, that Pierotti kept the true intention of the JRM investigation away from Manning, masking it simply as an "IT Review". The very day Manning went on an extended medical leave in July 2011, JRM subcontractors went to work.
Pierotti's testimony contradicted his glowing remarks to the press in 2012 upon Manning's abrupt "retirement": We've worked very closely over the past 10 years, and I consider our relationship to be more than merely an employer-employee relationship. I will truly miss his input and our discussions.
Aside from the president and the Forest Preserve's contracted attorney, no one at the Forest Preserve knew about the investigation, according to testimony. The Board only initially approved $18,000 for JRM, after being told it was just a review. The president unlawfully authorized expanding the no-bid contract amount to $66,000 for politically-connected JRM, although they were not licensed to conduct an investigation. The Board rubber stamped the approval for payment in December 2011 -- after the fact when the "true" scope of the covert investigation was revealed.
The president also at that time ushered in political operatives Reverse Spin, now Delos Communications, for a $48,000 no-bid contract for 24/7 communications, despite the Forest Preserve already having a six-person PR department. Reverse Spin specializes in smear campaigns and is closely associated with Restoration PAC, Rick "Swift Boat" Reed, former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan and former DuPage State's Attorney Joe Birkett. The Board asked no questions about the well-known operatives and, again, rubber stamped the no-bid contract. The lack of work product of Reverse Spin over the next year suggests that the contract may have been retroactive payment for earlier work, possibly during the JRM "investigation".
Judge Brennan stated that a trial is a "a truth-seeking" process. One truth from the past two weeks rang out clear and strong: The remedy for the allegations against McDonald, Tepper and Mahmood did not belong in a court room. The remedy belonged in a board room. A long time ago.
DuPage County Forest Preserve Board Failed...Again and Again
For years, the top administration of the DuPage County Forest Preserve has reeked more than a pile of manure at Danada Equestrian Center on a windy day.
Incompetent. Dysfunctional. Politicized. Over-paid. Secret. Corrupt. Questionable projects with questionable high billings.
A tightly-knit power structure kept the wrong people in power and still does. The Board consists of seven elected officials -- commissioners representing six districts and a president. These part-time positions are highly compensated -- in 2011, $53,500 annual salary for commissioners and $112,000 for president* -- with benefits including pension eligibility and outstanding health care with premiums a whopping $100 per month.
The Forest Preserve's out-dated procurement process was flawed. From 1988 through 2011, it had never been amended. Procurement policy was never a big deal at the Forest Preserve, no doubt by design. It was not a requirement to disclose subcontractors. Even JRM was not required to disclose their subcontractors, such as IDOT manager Vince Durante who is the son of DuPage GOP heavyweight Pat Durante, nor their owners, in writing.
A tedious portion of the trial focused on the approval process of invoices at the time of the allegations, starting with the Finance Department all the way to Board approval of payments.
Changes were later made by staff requiring more signatures for high expenditures. Pierotti admitted that flaws existed, saying: We put in checks and balances that should have been in place before this happened. Too little, too late for McDonald, Tepper and Mahmood.
Nothing has changed with the Board approval of payments since the IT investigation began in 2011. A Commissioner on the witness stand admitted that she doesn't often question the expenditures for payment. Why not? In fact, why not assign each commissioner a stack of invoices to review and initialize every month? Maybe they'd be more accountable instead of placing all the blame on someone lower on the food chain. Maybe they'd actually earn a little of their inflated salaries and benefits. Maybe none of this would have happened in the first place.
It's called due diligence.
As early as 2006, citizens were demanding that Board meeting minutes be more complete, up-to-date, and that meetings be televised. Finally, after years of public pressure, Board meetings are televised. If Board minutes had been more complete, recorded and preserved sooner, that ambiguous paragraph in March 2009 minutes would not have undergone agonizing interpretation and head scratching during the trial. (The judge, weary of dissection, joked that he had that paragraph memorized. Citizen watchdogs feel his pain.)
Ethics were such a low priority at the Forest Preserve that they didn't bother appointing an Ethics Commission until 2013 -- 10 years after the ethics laws were enacted in Illinois. When they finally did get around to it, cronies were appointed as commissioners..."ethics rules cannot be entrusted to anyone outside the circle, of course". The Forest Preserve had the option to amend and strengthen the state's model ethics ordinance, customizing it to address specific concerns. They chose not to, even after the IT eruption.
Double, Triple, Quadruple and Quintuple Standards
Ordinances and rules found in dusty employee handbooks are meaningless unless they're enforced for everyone, fairly and not selectively. That means board presidents can't hire their sons-in-law. That means a commissioner can't pull strings to have her daughter hired as a security officer. That means you can't sick a security officer on a citizen seeking public information. That means you cannot hire your campaign guy into a high-paying position as finance director. That means you can't charge a former employee with felonies for violating two-week-old policy revisions.
If it comes out that broken rules in DuPage County employee handbooks are criminal offenses, the State's Attorney and Sheriff must request significant increases in their 2016 budgets to handle the multitude of violators. Hear Ye, Hear Ye -- let's start with infringers found in the offices of the State's Attorney and Sheriff. That alone should keep the 4th floor of the Henry J. Hyde Judicial Office Facility buzzing for a few years.
Pierotti admitted, under oath, before God, that he didn't trust his $175,000 executive director and kept him in the dark, yet allowed him to stay another full year. In fact, Pierotti chose not to inform Commissioners about the true purpose of JRM. Pierotti "did not trust anyone".
The Forest Preserve has only had one executive director for about six months since Manning "retired" over three years ago. During this period, Pierotti even appointed himself as executive director. No kidding. He had neither legal authority nor board approval. And briefly, John Lapinski, a trial court administrator for the DuPage Chief Judge's office, was even approved to serve as executive director after interviews conducted in the kitchen of his neighbor, Joe Cantore, then a commissioner and now the Forest Preserve president. Later Lapinski changed his mind.
And then there's Mark the Barber...
There were and are worse problems at the Forest Preserve than McDonald, Tepper and Mahmood.
Guys in the IT department didn't exactly have role models in this culture of unrestraint. No one probably would have ever noticed the geeks until an invoice crossed someone's desk in February 2011, prompting the hand-written message: Are all users on Archiving? For some reason, this was a problem.
The techies were blissfully oblivious of the political apparatus positioning around them, probably never realizing that information buried deep within the database's megabytes, kilobytes and exabytes was radioactive. Whatever it was, it had to be urgently and secretly deleted. To make this happen required that they be forced out, then discredited before they spoke out. That's the Reverse Spin.
P.S. Regarding Statements of Economic Interest...
Finally, prosecutors also brought up McDonald's failure to report anything on his statements of economic interest -- mandated signed disclosure forms filed with the County -- as an example of concealment. Their charge would seem more genuine if the prosecutors' former boss, Joe Birkett, now an Illinois Second District Appellate Court judge, hadn't stated in 2009 that it was a "poorly worded statute" and omission was "probably a mistake that's made thousands of times a year by city, county and state employees."
CountyLeaks' Closing Thoughts
Something here absolutely does belong in a court room. This time, there must be a real investigation outside of DuPage County of the real criminals.
CountyLeaks receives an astronomic number of hits. I often wonder who might be out there reading this blog? I wonder if by placing words in the right combination, could one of those hits make a difference?
As I write, I can see the eclipse shining through my window, coinciding with the biggest, brightest moon of the year, the supermoon. Martin Luther King said, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
We wait for Thursday, Oct. 1st, 9 am, Room 4012...
* In 2013, the Forest Preserve Board voted to lower their salaries - $50,000 for Commissioners and $75,000 for President. Pension eligibility and health care coverage remain unchanged.