DIXON – A state law bars government employees from doing campaign work in their offices, but it’s rare that anyone is prosecuted under that law.
In the weeks before November’s election, Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon’s secretary, Sandie Cargill, wrote letters and created other documents on behalf of her boss’s campaign, according to files on her computer.
Last month, after Sauk Valley Media published a story about the campaign-related documents in Dixon’s office, Anna Sacco-Miller, who took office Dec. 1 after beating Dixon, said she would ban political activity in her office.
Sacco-Miller said people had asked her whether she would investigate the potential violations of the State Officers and Employees Ethics Act, which lists violations as misdemeanors. She said she her job was to prosecute, not investigate.
She said she knew of no agency investigating the situation, but that if one asked her to prosecute, she would immediately send the matter to a special prosecutor, saying that she didn’t want an appearance of a conflict of interest.
David Morrison, deputy director of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said he hadn’t heard of many violations of the Ethics Act, enacted in 2003.
“Most people are getting it right,” he said. “The point of putting standards into a statute is not to have a series of prosecutions. The goal is to see changes in behavior.”
So why ban the use of government resources for campaigns?
“Incumbents should be using their offices for the public benefit, not their own benefit,” Morrison said.
Lee County includes an ethics policy in its handbook for nonunion employees; it largely reflects state law, banning political activity in county offices and warning that violations may result in criminal charges.
The policy says the County Board chairman will appoint an ethics adviser, in consultation with the state’s attorney. Chairman Rick Ketchum, who took the helm Dec. 1, said he did not know whether one had been appointed.
Last year, a judge found McHenry County State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi not guilty of charges that he had used his office for his political campaign.
A former secretary told authorities that Bianchi had forced her to do work for his campaign. Special prosecutors accused Bianchi of using office computers for lists and letters to supporters. But his attorneys pointed out that the county handbook allowed department heads to have discretion on allowing staff to use computers for some personal use.
Watchdog: No need to prosecute every time
In November, Sauk Valley Media asked to see campaign-related records on Dixon’s and Cargill’s computers.
The request yielded a number of documents. Among them was a letter from Dixon asking a Sacco-Miller campaign contributor why he had supported his opponent. In another document, Dixon asked a retired judge to endorse him. His office also prepared information – titled “election news release” – on convictions that his office had won; the release ended up on his campaign website, but apparently nowhere else.
Morrison cited the McHenry County case and situations in Chicago as violations of the state law banning political activity using government resources. But he couldn’t recall any downstate.
Asked about a prosecution in the Dixon case, he said, “I don’t think you need to prosecute in each and every instance.”
In 2008, candidate Henry Dixon went to the Dixon City Council to complain about a link on the Police Department’s website to the website of his opponent, then-State’s Attorney Paul Whitcombe.
The city investigated and later acknowledged that an employee unknowingly broke the state ban on using government resources for a political campaign.
Dixon wasn’t satisfied.
“I was hoping Paul Whitcombe would prosecute the criminal who did it,” he said in an interview back then.
‘You ruined my reputation’
In 2011, Sauk Valley Media published a story about how Dixon had used state’s attorney letterhead in a message to Whitcombe, in which he sought to make peace with his former opponent and discused the political race ahead.
Watchdog groups contended he shouldn’t use official letterhead for campaign purposes. In later documents, he used his personal letterhead, but his secretary still created the documents at the office.
After last month’s story appeared about the political activity in Dixon’s office, Cargill left the state’s attorney’s office.
Sacco-Miller wouldn’t say why, but Dixon said his former secretary had been fired because of the Sauk Valley Media story. Cargill worked for Dixon for 42 years.
In an interview last month, Dixon wouldn’t answer questions about the political documents in his office.
Instead, he accused a reporter of running him out of office. He said the reporter caused the ouster of Cargill – “an absolutely wonderful woman.”
“You ruined my reputation as an attorney,” he said. “You did evil things.”