Friday, June 24, 2011

Below the Radar in Edgar County -- Mutual Interests of Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor and Others Working in McHenry County on High-Profile Cases

Same January 2008 Day ILSAAP Media Consultants Met Quietly with McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi in Itasca, Another Fire was Burning Down State -- the Release of Herb Whitlock from Prison. Whitlock's Ongoing Cases of Interest to Same People Working Now in McHenry County on High-Profile Cases.

Late in 2007, the Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor (ILSAAP), the Agency's contracted media consultants, and DuPage County defense attorneys Terry Ekl and James Sotos had mutual interests in a white-haired man sitting in a cell in the Danville Correction Center.

Herb Whitlock, after serving 21 years in prison for the murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris, IL, was about to be released. A 53-page decision by the 4th District Illinois Appellate Court was unanimous in granting a new trial for Whitlock, ruling that evidence favorable to his defense had been suppressed. The deadline for ILSAAP special prosecutors Chuck Colburn and Michael Vujovich to pull together a new trial was quickly approaching.

Minutes from the Dec. 5, 2007 ILSAAP Board of Governors meeting mentioned that Vujovich had traveled with Illinois State Police officers to Orlando to meet with a key witness not previously interviewed regarding the 1986 double homicide. ILSAAP special prosecutors David Rands and Ed Parkinson would be consulting because of their previous involvement in the case.

On Jan. 4, 2008, ILSAAP filed a highly-publicized Motion to Nolle Prosequi Without Prejudice for the release of Whitlock, signed by Colburn and Vujovich. While it provided freedom, there was no finality. The motion charged that Whitlock remained under suspicion and required additional investigation. Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune referred to ILSAAP's motion as "peevish" and "a shot of slime." "The idea that prosecutors still need more time to investigate one of the most investigated and repeatedly re-investigated crimes in state history is nonsense," he wrote. 

Widespread press quotes of Colburn and Vujovich on the prisoner's release reinforced ILSAAP's stand that Whitlock and his former co-defendant, Gordon "Randy" Steidl were perpetual suspects. 

Among the numerous media outlets reporting the special prosecutors' remarks was the Terre Haute Tribune Star. It quoted Vujovich: "Two people were viciously murdered and we are still committed to getting to the bottom of this case. We have always believed that the two suspects that were convicted -- Mr. Steidl and Mr. Whitlock -- were responsible for the death of those two individuals."

Together, ILSAAP's motion and press quotes may have later served as protection for a defendant or defendants in wrongful conviction lawsuits represented by Ekl and Sotos, as well as deflecting attention from other potential suspects -- suspects Whitlock and Steidl claim had motive for murder.

Curry Public Strategies (which later morphed into Reverse Spin and Delos Communications) while under contract with ILSAAP for media consultation during Whitlock's release, had conducted damage control for a wealthy Paris businessman, once considered a person of interest in the murders. The consultants refer to themselves as "game changers".

A court exhibit from an ongoing federal civil lawsuit documents that the consultants were under a contract of $8,000 per month from the businessman in 2005 -- the same time they were receiving $4,000 monthly from Citizens to Elect Joe Birkett. (Former DuPage County State's Attorney Birkett was running for lieutenant governor of Illinois during this time. It was ILSAAP Board of Governors Vice Chairman Birkett who later steered Agency contracts to his political consultants. He was appointed to the 2nd District Illinois Appellate Court in 2010.) 

The court exhibit also reveals that the PR firm coordinated damage control with DuPage law firms of Terry Ekl and James Sotos with information obtained through their private investigators. Plaintiff attorneys later charged this evidence had been withheld from them; Judge Harold Baker, U.S. District Court of Central Illinois, ruled in their favor. 

ILSAAP Media Assistance Below the Radar in Both Edgar and McHenry Counties 

There was no reference of the media consultants' work for the Paris businessman in ILSAAP Board of Governors meeting minutes, their proposals or their resume as a potential conflict of interest with the Agency while under contract from October 2007 through June 2009. 

Public disclosures were apparently not made to the Agency, however, court evidence shows several staff members at ILSAAP were already aware of media consultants' work for the Paris businessman including a senior executive and several special prosecutors still employed at the Agency. 

Those close to Steidl and Whitlock were aware of the media consultants' past public relations for the Paris businessman and the coordinated effort with defense attorneys. However, they reportedly were unaware that the media consultants were also being paid by ILSAAP while their contracts were current from 2007 to 2009 -- the same agency that held the two men under never-ending scrutiny. 

As with Bianchi in McHenry County, the consultants kept their work for the Agency below the radar on anything to do with Edgar County.

ILSAAP's media consultants made no specific mention of Whitlock in their January 2008 activity report to the Agency. There was a vague account: I consulted several times with the Appellate Prosecutor's office in order to return press calls.

Because the Whitlock release received by far the most media attention and public controversy that month for ILSAAP, the consultants more than likely had discussed talking points with the Agency and the special prosecutors. If true, fed talking points may have kept any spotlight off a defendant or defendants in the wrongful conviction lawsuits, and from the media consultants' own private client -- the Paris businessman, once considered a person of interest.  

The same day Whitlock was released, the ILSAAP media consultants were quietly meeting with McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi and others in Itasca on "press-related issues".

ILSAAP's Power to Continue Investigation of Whitlock and Steidl Despite Potential Conflicts of Interest Still Unpublished in Media

Last month it was reported that ILSAAP is retesting DNA evidence from the Rhoads murders. Whitlock and Steidl worry they could be recharged any time.

Steidl's attorney, Flint Taylor, told the Illinois Times' Patrick Yeagle, "...that's a very real possibility, even if the DNA evidence doesn’t actually implicate Steidl or Whitlock. He says the pair was framed the first time, and he’s not the only one who feels that way."

“'Their suspicions and fears are well-founded in the sense that we know that these people have sought for decades to frame these men and are not satisfied with the fact that they’re innocent. They’re continuing on this disgraceful, legally-sanctioned vendetta.'”

By continuing to cast a cloud of doubt over Whitlock and Steidl, any other potential criminal defendant or defendants would consequently not be investigated. At the same time, incessant probing may be serving as legal protection of defendants in wrongful conviction lawsuits. 

There is speculation that the on-going threat of "investigations" may pressure Whitlock and Steidl to agree to a lower settlement in what could become one of the largest wrongful conviction lawsuits in Illinois history. Persisting "investigations" may also justify objections to exonerations and pardons which could also impact the outcome of these lawsuits. 

ILSAAP prepared and unanimously approved an amicus curiae "friend of the court" brief on Sept. 22, 2010 supporting public payment of legal fees for former Edgar County State's Attorney Michael McFatridge, represented by Ekl in the ongoing Whitlock/Steidl lawsuits. 

Earlier this year, Whitlock and Steidl told WTWO-TV's Patrick Fazio that they had gone to the FBI with information on McFatridge and the businessman shortly before the Rhoads murders. Fazio reported that the FBI investigation came to an end when McFatridge charged the two men with the murders. (Click red type embedded within the article for direct links) 

McFatridge served on ILSAAP's Board of Governors from 1989 - 1991. While in this position, his name appeared on two amicus curiae briefs filed by the Illinois State's Attorneys Association -- one supporting Birkett, in Henry vs. Ryan, represented by attorney James Sotos. The other, Arkebauer vs. Kiley, includes the name of Patrick Delfino, now serving as ILSAAP's executive director. McFatridge's name on these filings suggests that he held a leadership position at the Association, a non-profit corporation closely affiliated with ILSAAP, not subject to the Freedom of Information Act or the Open Meetings Act. 

The Whitlock and Steidl cases wouldn't be the only possible conflicts of interest among ILSAAP, the media consultants, defendants and legal defense. In April 2011, special prosecutor Thomas McQueen requested Joseph McGraw to withdraw from presiding over the upcoming second trial of Bianchi as the judge had been paid by ILSAAP. The Agency and those closely associated with them were involved in other aspects of Bianchi's case.

McGraw denied the request, stating, "These accusations when considered in context, do not create even the appearance of impropriety.

The Edgar County Legal Defense/PR "Dream Team" 

Whitlock's former co-defendant, Randy Steidl, had been released in 2004, four years earlier than Whitlock. Steidl was "lucky". Because he had been given the death penalty instead of a life sentence as his former co-defendant, his case was expedited through different courts. The following year, Steidl had filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit alleging he had been railroaded. Once Whitlock would be released, it was anticipated that he would file a similar lawsuit.

Shortly after Steidl filed the federal lawsuit in 2005, Curry Public Strategies of Wheaton was hired by wealthy businessman from Paris, IL for pre-emptive damage control. The businessman was once considered a person of interest in the case, but apparently never investigated. Publicity of Steidl's lawsuit might have provoked the public to ask: Who really was behind the murders?

The introduction of the businessman and Curry Public Strategies was likely through Chicago attorney John Pearman, who had been raised in Paris and still had close ties to the town with a population of 8,800. Dan Curry had met Pearman working at the executive office of former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan; Curry as spokesperson and Pearman as chief of policy and legislative affairs. 

In 2008, Curry and Pearman would become partners of Reverse Spin, also of Wheaton. Pearman's father, Ralph Pearman, is listed as the company's agent who filed for LLC; the elder Pearman had served both as the former Edgar County state's attorney and chief judge. (Public records show that John Pearman has recently hung a shingle at the same address of his father's law firm in Paris. Reverse Spin renamed itself Delos Communications in 2013).

Steidl's list of defendants in the lawsuit includes former Edgar County State's Attorney Michael McFatridge, represented by Lisle attorney Terry Ekl, and the City of Paris, represented by Itasca law firm James Sotos & Assoc. 

Ekl had served as a former prosecutor and was Birkett's first campaign chairman for the seat of DuPage County state's attorney. He successfully defended former prosecutor Thomas Knight in the "DuPage Seven" trial of officials charged with conspiracy against Rolando Cruz. Ekl currently represents Bianchi on felony charges, and John Harris, star witness for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's cases against former Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Along with Ekl, Sotos was on the defense team of the DuPage Seven. Sotos appeared on behalf of DuPage County, per Birkett's request, before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to describe Rolando Cruz as a "con man" when Cruz sought a full pardon for his overturned capital conviction in the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico. (Cruz was later pardoned and received a wrongful conviction settlement.)

Sotos has represented cities, counties and law enforcement officials in cases with citizens file suit alleging violations of their civil rights. More recently, he was the attorney for Jon Burge, the former Chicago police commander who was convicted for lying about the torture of murder suspects. Sotos successfully represented McHenry County in Gary Gauger's wrongful conviction lawsuit, and  is currently representing McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren in a wrongful termination lawsuit. 

The media consultants teamed up with attorneys to create a public relations/legal strike force, a tactic used often in high-profile cases to impact the court of public opinion.

Unconventional PR activity by the consultants in Edgar County included sending a letter to the producer of CBS "48 Hours" warning of "vigorous legal action" against the network should the businessman's name be mentioned in the program.

The Aug. 20, 2008 Illinois Times article by Dusty Rhodes, "Public Relations Gone Awry", which summarizes the court exhibit, reported: Curry's defense of the Paris businessman included offensive tactics meant to discredit key witnesses including David Protess, the Northwestern University journalism professor whose students investigated the Paris crime; Michale Callahan, the now-retired ISP lieutenant whose efforts to reopen the murder investigation resulted in a successful lawsuit against his superiors; as well as Steidl's Springfield attorney Michael Metnick and private investigator Bill Clutter. 

Although no longer providing tax-paid one-on-one assistance to Bianchi through ILSAAP, these consultants have reportedly been involved with public relations in the defense of the state's attorney with Ekl. 

"The High Costs of Wrongful Convictions" 

A seven-month investigation released last week by the Better Government Association and the Center for Wrongful Convictions, "The High Costs of Wrongful Convictions"revealed that wrongful convictions have cost Illinois taxpayers $214 million over the past 20 years. The report "also determined that while 85 people were wrongfully incarcerated, the actual perpetrators were on a collective crime spree that included 14 murders, 11 sexual assaults, 10 kidnappings and at least 59 other felonies."

The BGA/CWC investigation concluded that it was that "it was far cheaper to incarcerate the innocent than to compensate them afterward". 

Timeline - December 2007 & January 2008/Edgar County

Dec. 5, 2007  Board of Governors of Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor meet at Westin Hotel in Chicago. The minutes mention the reversal of the conviction of Whitlock and the impending retrial in January 2008.  The minutes read, “Special Prosecutor Vujovich, along with State Police Officers, when to Orlando, Florida to interview a key witness who had not been previously interviewed.”  

January 2008  Curry states in his monthly report that he “consulted extensively with two state’s attorneys – DuPage County SA Joe Birkett and McHenry County SA Lou Bianchi.”  He also stated that he consulted several times with the Appellate Prosecutor's office to return press calls. 

Jan. 4, 2008  ILSAAP files a highly-publicized motion to Nolle Prosequi Without Prejudice to drop murder charges of Herb Whitlock who had been accused of murder in 1986 murders of Karen and Dyke Rhoads in Paris, IL in Edgar County.  

Jan. 8, 2008  Whitlock is freed after nearly 21 years in prison.

Terre Haute Tribune Star publishes, “Whitlock is Free Man After Two Decades in Prison for Paris, Ill., Murder.”  Special Prosecutor Michael Vujovich is quoted, “Two people were viciously murdered and we are still committed to getting to the bottom of this case. We have always believed that the two suspects that were convicted – Mr. Steidl and Mr. Whitlock – were responsible for the death of those two individuals.”

Jan. 10, 2008  Eric Zorn, in his Chicago Tribune column, "Change of Subject", writes “Herb Whitlock’s parting gift from the state of Illinois was a shot of slime.”  Zorn writes, “…instead of just letting him go gracefully, they grumped and groused and accused him again of participating in the gruesome 1986 slayings…”

McHenryLeaks asks:

Should ILSAAP stop its investigation of Whitlock and Steidl, given their multiple conflicts of interest? 

Should ILSAAP distance itself from criminal and civil litigation of its state's attorneys and former state's attorneys, particularly when the Agency can use its own powers to impact the outcomes?

Is it ethical to hold the threat of "investigations" for years as leverage to protect interests in a wrongful conviction lawsuit? 

Why did ILSAAP allow the media consultants to enter into contracts with them, knowing of their work in Edgar County with the Paris businessman? Or, were the consultants just who they wanted for such "projects"?

Why did Reverse Spin rename itself Delos Communications?

Following are minutes from the ILSAAP Board of Governors meeting held on Dec. 5, 2007 in Chicago. To enlarge, click or double-click the image: