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Ogle County prosecutor challenged in GOP primary

Candidates disagree on incumbent’s performance

Published: Thursday, March 6, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST
Caption
Michael Rock
Caption
Eric Morrow

OREGON – Ogle County State’s Attorney Mike Rock touts the performance of his office since he took the helm a little more than a year ago after his predecessor left to become a judge.

Eric Morrow, a local attorney and Rock’s opponent in the March 18 Republican primary, takes a dimmer view of the incumbent’s brief tenure.

In January 2013, the Ogle County Board unanimously voted for Rock to replace State’s Attorney Ben Roe, who had been named a judge in the 15th Judicial Circuit. Rock was among four candidates, including Morrow, who were interviewed by a selection committee.

Rock had been first assistant state’s attorney under Roe since 2010 and was a prosecutor for the office from 1994 to 2000. He later was in private practice in Rockford for the 10 years until he returned to the office.

Board members praise Rock

A year after Rock was sworn in, members of a board committee that oversees the state’s attorney’s office are happy with Rock’s performance.

“He’s done very well, and he’s good with money,” said John Finfrock, the committee’s chairman. “I absolutely support him in his re-election.”

“He has not only met his budget line, but been under it,” said another member, Pat Nordman. “The collection of fines and fees has been up.”

Member Zach Oltmanns, another member, chimed in, saying Rock has been a “very good” head of the state’s attorney’s office and “he is easy to deal with.”

Criticism from Morrow

Morrow, 38, who responded to questions by email, said he doesn’t mean to criticize the performance of any of Rock’s employees, but he wanted to comment on the policies of the top prosecutor.

Previously, Morrow said, communication between the state’s attorney’s office and other agencies was the office’s “hallmark,” but that is no longer the case.

“Since Mr. Rock was appointed to the position of state’s attorney, I have witnessed a breakdown of communication between his office and other members of the system, which has led to a lack of efficiency in the system,” Morrow wrote in the email.

Communication with victims, including families dealing with the aftermath of “heinous” crimes such as child sexual abuse, has been reduced to form letters that are sometimes delivered unsealed, according to the challenger.

The state’s attorney’s office, Morrow said, was also known for an innovative approach to juvenile justice and drug court. Despite Rock’s campaign rhetoric supporting such programs, Morrow said, the state’s attorney has shown “something less than support” over the past year.

“As someone who was involved at the outset with both the juvenile programs and drug court, I find it disturbing that this programming has suffered since the current state’s attorney’s appointment,” he said in the email. “As the next state’s attorney, I will work collaboratively with other departments to restore and expand these programs.

‘Stiff’ sentences for drug dealers

Rock, 48, insisted he has worked well with law enforcement.

“We’re not always going to agree, but I have a very good relationship with detectives and officers all throughout the county,” he said in a telephone interview during his lunch hour. “I have an excellent victim’s advocate [in the office]. Every single victim gets a letter from us explaining what’s going to happen. We ask for their input. We reach out to them, making sure they don’t find out something first in the newspaper.”

He said his experience in Rockford helped to prepare him as state’s attorney, “dealing with all different kinds of crime, more than I could have in a lifetime in Ogle County.”

As for his job, Rock said: “I want to serve the public. I take really seriously that the prosecutor’s duty is to seek justice.”

One of the office’s most important duties, he said, is to keep drugs out of Ogle County. He promised “stiff” sentences for drug dealers, sending a message to those outside the county who bring in drugs.

Following FOIA?

Over the past year, state’s attorney’s offices have become more closed as the result of an appellate court ruling that they no longer have to follow the Freedom of Information Act. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule soon, but the Sauk Valley’s state’s attorneys have chosen not to follow the provisions of the open records law.

For instance, Whiteside County State’s Attorney Trish Joyce last year kept secret an interview of a suspect who had already been convicted of attacking a local man. In that same case, the Sterling Police Department, which must follow the law, released the victim’s interview.

In 2012, then-Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon released emails upon Sauk Valley Media’s request showing that his office had engaged in politics. His successor, Anna Sacco-Miller, while promising to bar political activities in her office, said the office no longer had to comply with FOIA because of the ruling.

Rock agreed.

“I am the lawyer for the whole county, as well as a number of department heads,” he said. “I get a number of emails from them. There is an attorney-client relationship.”

Rock said he wouldn’t want to “sift” through all of his documents to determine what portions are subject to attorney-client privilege.

At the same time, in his role as state’s attorney, Rock said, he has always recommended that county departments follow the information law.

Morrow said that if the Supreme Court overturns the ruling or the Legislature amends the law, he would abide by FOIA.

“If, however, neither one of these things happen, there is no requirement that the state’s attorney not comply with the spirit of the act,” he wrote in his email. “As a result, if the state of the law remains the same and the state’s attorney’s office remains exempt from the act, I would still consider requests on a case-by-case basis and release appropriate records.”

No Democrat is running for state’s attorney. The new 4-year term will start Dec. 1.

The candidates

Mike Rock

Age: 48

City of residence: Byron

Occupation: Ogle County state's attorney

Experience: Assistant state's attorney in Ogle County, 1994-2000; private attorney in Rockford, 2000-2010; first assistant state's attorney in Ogle County, 2010-2013

Education: Law degree, University of San Francisco, 1992; bachelor's degree in political science, University of California, 1988

Family: Wife, Maggie; three children

Eric Morrow

Age: 38

City of residence: Oregon

Occupation: Attorney

Experience: Assistant state's attorney in Ogle County, 2000-2002, associate attorney with Smith, Hanson & Hahn, P.C., 2002-2003; partner with same firm (now Smith & Morrow), 2003 to present.

Education: Law degree, Southern Illinois University, 2000; bachelor's degree in law enforcement and justice, Western Illinois University, 1997.

Family: Wife, Trisha; two children

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