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Politics in Lee County state's attorney's office?

Campaign documents on government computer

DIXON – Former Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon apparently had his secretary do campaign work at the office, even though state law bars using government resources for campaigns.

Through a public information request, Sauk Valley Media obtained documents related to Dixon’s re-election from the computer of his secretary, Sandie Cargill.

In one letter, Dixon wrote to ask an attorney why he contributed to the campaign of Dixon’s Republican opponent, Anna Sacco-Miller – a letter that one watchdog group suggested might be intimidating.

Dixon and Cargill declined to comment on the documents found on her computer. The county’s information technology director, Mike McBride, searched the computer for campaign-related documents; Cargill sent the results to Sauk Valley Media.

State’s Attorney Sacco-Miller, who took office Dec. 1 after defeating Dixon last month with nearly 59 percent of the vote, declined to discuss specifics in the documents.

“I find they speak for themselves,” she said in an email, “and as such, have no additional comments to make.”

Letter ‘could be seen as intimidating’

On Oct. 23, Dixon wrote to ask Sycamore attorney Rick Amato about his contribution to Sacco-Miller’s campaign. The Amato & Sheen law firm gave Sacco-Miller $350.

“I noted in the campaign contribution report of Anna Sacco-Miller that you are the highest contributor of money to her campaign,” Dixon wrote in the letter.

“I am curious as to why. Do you have some problem with the way Lee County criminal cases have been handled at this end?”

It’s not clear whether Amato received the letter or how he handled it if he did. He didn’t return a message for comment.

David Morrison, deputy director of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, questioned the letter.

“The [letter], asking someone who contributed to his opponent about objections to how he conducts the office, is sketchy and could be seen as intimidating and may be illegal, especially if the address atop the page corresponds to a taxpayer office,” Morrison wrote in an email.

Dixon used his personal address, 203 E. Fellows St., in all the letters, although they were produced on a government computer.

Dixon faced similar issue in 2011

Last year, Sauk Valley Media obtained a letter from Dixon to his 2008 opponent, Paul Whitcombe, in which he discussed politics. It was on official letterhead from the state’s attorney’s office. Dixon speculated on the campaign ahead and said he wanted to “make peace” with Whitcombe.

Dixon’s secretary typed that letter.

At the time, watchdog groups, including the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, contended Dixon crossed an ethical line by using the letterhead. That may be why Dixon started using his home address for political matters.

Morrison of the Campaign for Political Reform said the lesson Dixon apparently “learned was not ‘do no wrong’ but rather ‘cover your tracks.’”

In the recently obtained letters, Dixon’s office sometimes used the initials “sc” at the end, indicating that Cargill drafted them.

In an Oct. 23 letter, Dixon asked retired Ogle County Judge Stephen Pemberton for an endorsement in the campaign.

“Before you retired, you told me you would be happy to write a letter endorsing me,” Dixon wrote. “Are you still willing to do so?”

Dixon asked the judge to send an endorsement letter to Sauk Valley Media, giving instructions on how to do so. On Nov. 3, Pemberton’s letter was published in the Telegraph and Daily Gazette.

Pemberton called Dixon “an able attorney and administrator” and “a committed public servant and patriot.”

In an interview, Pemberton said that after he retired in July, he had told Dixon he would consider endorsing him.

“I don’t know if I promised something,” he said.

A letter dated Oct. 24 on Cargill’s computer had a different name at the bottom: then-Lee County Board Chairman Jim Seeberg, R-Ashton. It had been written to Jeff Rogers, managing editor of Sauk Valley Media.

In an interview, Seeberg said the letter was never sent because he forgot about it.

The letter criticized the way Sauk Valley Media reported Dixon’s handling of a public records issue.

“It appears obvious not only to me, but to several board members I’ve talked with today, that the Telegraph’s incorrect attacks on Henry Dixon are totally political and that you will go to any depths to run him out of office,” the letter said. “Henry has been a wise and timely counselor for the board and has served us well. I – actually, we – take offense at the shabby way you are mistreating him.”

This letter, presumably drafted by Cargill or Dixon, was produced by the county when it was asked to provide the newspaper with campaign-related documents. But the letter doesn’t mention the election.

Political emails during work hours

On Nov. 1, the state’s attorney’s office wrote news releases on the conviction of a woman for drug-induced homicide and charges against two Dixon state prison inmates. The news releases were addressed to “Amanda,” although it’s unclear who she is. No one at the state’s attorney’s office is named Amanda.

The document included the notation, “election news release.”

A web search indicated the releases ended up on Dixon’s campaign website. Area media apparently didn’t get them.

It is unclear how much taxpayers’ time that Dixon and Cargill spent on the campaign; in October, Dixon persuaded the County Board to allow him to hire another clerical employee, saying his office was strapped because of several murder cases.

The documents from Cargill’s computer didn’t indicate what hours of the day they were produced.

But Sauk Valley Media received two direct emails from Cargill about the campaign. They weren’t produced as a result of the public records request. She sent both of those emails during work hours on weekdays.

At 3:55 p.m. Oct. 1, Cargill sent an email asking how Dixon should prepare a newspaper column to promote his candidacy.

At 2:17 p.m. Oct. 24, she emailed Sauk Valley Media higher-ups. She attached a letter from Dixon, which the county produced as part of the public records request. In the letter, Dixon referred to a campaign promise he made in 2008 and responded to Sacco-Miller’s campaign assertions.

Use of government resources questioned

Maryam Judar, an attorney with the Elmhurst-based Citizens Advocacy Center, questioned why the documents were on Cargill’s computer.

“None of the documents appear to have any logo representing an obvious use of government resources,” Judar said in an email. “The question is why would these documents related to the campaign be among Ms. Cargill’s documents at the place of government business. ...”

Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform said some of the documents produced by the county dealt with the work of the state’s attorney’s office. He said it was appropriate for the state’s attorney to correct “mistaken impressions about what the office does.”

“These are usual and customary duties of all public officials, and there is no harm to the public from an official who talks about his or her record,” Morrison wrote in an email. But he said state law barred the use of public resources for campaigns.

The letter to Pemberton, he said, appeared to violate the state ethics act if it was written, typed or mailed with taxpayer resources.

Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, who started as Lee County Board chairman on Dec. 1, said he was aware of no political activity in the state’s attorney’s office. Ketchum, the board’s former Finance Committee chairman, said he knew Cargill used to work late at night in the office.

“If it was during the day, I would hope they would be pretty careful,” he said.

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