ASHTON – A grand jury investigated an off-the-books scrap metal fund in Ashton earlier this year and found nothing criminal.
Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller said this week that the grand jury, whose proceedings are secret, looked into possible misuse of the fund. Authorities received a tip about it in January, she said.
Sacco-Miller said the grand jury found that then-Village President John Martinez had returned money to the scrap metal fund.
In the April election, former Village President Don Ross, as a write-in candidate, beat Martinez with 53 percent of the vote.
“If the new administration uncovers something, this can be addressed again,” Sacco-Miller said.
Martinez, elected in 2009, said the timing of the accusation was suspect, just a few months before the election, but Sacco-Miller handled the matter professionally.
The village, he said, had a longtime practice in which it put the proceeds from the sale of scrap metal into a separate, off-the-books fund. Employees and officials would, for instance, take $20 from the fund for lunch when they had to go to Dixon, he said.
Everyone used the money on the honor system, Martinez said.
“I was the only one stupid enough to put an IOU in it,” he said. “We thought it was no big deal. It had been going on for years and years.”
Martinez said he borrowed money from the fund for personal use, with the intention of paying it back later.
In 2010, Martinez said, Village Clerk Sharon VanDam flagged down the problem. He owed $160, he said.
“I went straight home, came back with the money and paid it,” he said.
Martinez said Sacco-Miller advised the village put the fund on the books.
‘That’s some serious revenge’
The grand jury ended its work 4 days before the April 9 election, and Martinez said he didn’t know about the investigation until shortly before the jury reached its decision.
He found out later that his political opponents launched a whispering campaign that he would be recalled if he were re-elected because he would be arrested, he said.
“I’m not upset about losing this election whatsoever,” said Martinez, a painting contractor. “I’m upset that [my opponents] went to these lengths. It bothers me they were trying to destroy my reputation. That affected my personal life and my family. That’s some serious revenge.”
In early January, Martinez successfully challenged Ross’ candidacy because the former leader, who Martinez defeated 4 years earlier, hadn’t submitted a statement of economic interest with his filing. As a result, Ross became a write-in candidate.
Martinez also got village trustee candidates Richard Russell and Andrew Kida off the ballot for the same reason. Russell, too, entered the race as a write-in, but lost.
Russell: Don’t take a nickel for personal use
Russell, who testified before the grand jury, said he found out about the scrap metal fund issue in January from Trustee Tom Balch.
“We felt that we had no other choice but to go to the state’s attorney. Once it was with the state’s attorney, it was out of our hands,” Russell said.
Martinez was wrong about the $160 figure; he took $750 from the fund for his personal use, Russell said.
“I don’t think you should take a nickel for your personal use,” Russell said.
Sauk Valley Media filed a public records request relating to the fund Tuesday, which the clerk submitted to the village’s attorney.
Russell also said that in his 32 years on the board of trustees, he had no knowledge of the scrap metal fund.
‘Never thought I would be mayor’
Kida, an ally of Martinez, said the timing of the tip to the state’s attorney was dubious.
“It’s not an uncommon practice for villages and probably not ill-intentioned,” Kida said. “Mayor Martinez didn’t install the program. It was way before him. Now that the cost of metal is so high, the fund is so much more.”
Last year, authorities revealed that Northern Illinois University kept a separate, off-the books “coffee fund,” which resulted from scrap metal revenue. NIU officials said it was used for office retirement parties and other expenses.
In that case, two officials pleaded guilty to violating the State Property Control Act. They were sentenced to court supervision and fined $825.
Martinez doubts he’ll run again for mayor. He said he achieved a goal that he never thought he would “with a name like mine,” given that he is the son of a migrant worker.
“I never thought I would be mayor.”