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McLean County Ethics Panel Sends Clerk Complaint To State's Attorney

McLean County Ethics Commission
Eric Stock
McLean County Ethics Commission members, from left, Herman Brandau (chairman), Dan Liechty and Lane Hansen meet in the McLean County Board room on Oct. 1, 2018 to consider a complaint against County Clerk Kathy Michael.

McLean County’s Ethics Commission deliberated for two-and-a-half hours on Monday before deciding to send a complaint against County Clerk Kathy Michael to the county state’s attorney for review.

Michael, who is seeking a third term in the November election against Democrat Nikita Richards, was the target of an ethics complaint alleging she used a county-owned computer to do political work and tried to destroy a laptop to conceal evidence. The complaint was filed last week by Sarah Lindenbaum, a supporter of Richards.

Kathy Michael and Nikita Richards
Credit WGLT
McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, left, and her Democratic challenger Nikita Richards.

Ethics Commission Chairman Herman Brandau said the panel found a “limited number of instances” that the state’s attorney will review to see if any campaign laws were violated.

“If the devices were used for campaigning, then they would be in violation,” Brandau said. “Now the question is, were they used for campaigning? We had a couple instances where we found that, if true, it would be (a violation).”

Brandau added the allegation that Michael destroyed a county-issued laptop was beyond the commission’s jurisdiction and would be left to the state’s attorney to review.

State’s Attorney Don Knapp issued a statement that a conflict of interest "likely" exists, though he added his office hasn't received the formal documentation from the ethics commission. He said if a conflict arises, he will request the Illinois Appellate Prosecutors office review the matter. 

Michael posted on social media on Sunday night she would not attend the hearing. The county’s Director of Elections in the county clerk’s office, Denise Cesario, spoke in her defense during the public comment potion of the hearing.

Cesario explained Michael left her laptop outside on her deck while she was working. Michael went inside to do some laundry when a rainstorm hit, damaging the computer, Cesario said.

"There's no way she tried to destroy her laptop," Cesario told the commission. "It makes sense that she could have just buried it."

She explained Michael tried to salvage the computer by blowing a hair-dryer on it, then took it to Best Buy.

“She took it to Best Buy, frantically, because it was her responsibility, so she took it there to be paid by her to have them fix it and they said they couldn’t but (the county’s) IT could,” Cesario told the commission.

With help from an outside vendor, the county’s IT department was able to salvage the computer and retrieve the data which was sought in a Freedom of Information request.

The head of McLean County’s Information Technologies Department, Craig Nelson, told GLT the county doesn’t have any policy specifying where county IT equipment should be taken for repairs, but didn’t say how often repairs have been sent to outside vendors.

Cesario added the intensity of the county clerk’s campaign has caused an added strain on the office, requiring staff to spend additional time monitoring social media to refute “lies about the clerk and her office.”

Michael told GLT via email she wants to wait until the next step in the process before commenting further but added "I feel very strongly that I have not violated any ethics laws and look forward to making my points clear."

Richards, a human resources employee for the City of Bloomington, also faces an ethics complaint over allegations she was engaged in political work on city time. The city is coordinating an independent review of the matter.

Michael and Richards are scheduled to appear at a GLT candidate forum on Thursday.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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