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Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013 12:01 am

A decade later, still trying to clear his name

How one Springfield man lost his job over $100 worth of pot he never touched

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The Harbor Freight Tools parking lot where James Foster of Springfield was alleged to have sold a coworker one ounce of marijuana. Foster was acquitted of the charges, but lost his state job anyway.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
The Harbor Freight Tools parking lot where James Foster of Springfield was alleged to have sold a coworker one ounce of marijuana. Foster was acquitted of the charges, but lost his state job anyway.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

A decade ago, $100 apparently bought one ounce of marijuana.

That’s how much pot James Foster of Springfield was charged with selling to a police informant in 2003. His arrest ended up costing him his job and reputation, but he was found not guilty, and he believes he was framed.

Foster, now 56, worked as an office assistant for the Illinois Department of Human Services for nine years. He was a mentor for Lincoln’s Challenge Academy, a member of the executive board for AFSCME Local 2600, and Health and Safety chairman for the union. It was that last role that Foster believes led to his troubles.

Part of his job as Health and Safety chairman was to investigate complaints from state workers about their work environments. Many of those complaints involved the conditions of state offices, including piled-up bird feces, exposed asbestos, falling plaster and more.

During the time that Foster investigated complaints from state workers, many of the state’s office leases were for buildings owned or managed by William Cellini, the powerful Springfield real estate magnate, former Sangamon County Republican Party treasurer, and fundraiser for disgraced ex-governor Rod Blagojevich. Cellini was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to commit extortion and aiding and abetting in the solicitation of a bribe in connection with fundraising for Blagojevich, earning him a one-year prison sentence that ended last week when he was allowed out early on home confinement for good behavior.

In early 2003, James Foster investigated issues at the Alzina Building, 100 N. First St., near the Capitol. Cellini was a registered lobbyist for the company that owned the building, and one of his many companies managed the building, indicating that Cellini may have had an ownership stake in the building himself.

 Foster says he brought a complaint about unsafe conditions to the attention of the building managers, who indicated they would take care of the problem. Foster says he now believes the building managers considered him the problem.

Foster believes his insistence on fixing problems with buildings earned him a reputation as an agitator, which prompted a cabal of Cellini-connected state employees to push him out of his state job. His theory may sound outlandish, but court documents, police reports and bureaucratic records show something happened to Foster that doesn’t add up. Illinois Times previously wrote about Foster’s case in 2007. [See “The Holy Grail?,” July 18, 2007, by Dusty Rhodes.]

On Sept. 4, 2003, Foster had taken the day off to recover from being sick. He was running some errands around town when he got a call from Byron Collins, a fellow DHS employee at the time. Foster says Collins asked to meet with him about a union matter, so Foster drove to meet Collins in the parking lot of Harbor Freight Tools, 711 W. Jefferson. Foster didn’t know that Collins was working as a confidential source under the pseudonym “Mike Strong” for the Illinois State Police, or that Collins told police that Foster was selling drugs on state time.

Five officers from ISP’s Division of Internal Investigation parked in the same lot that Thursday morning around 8:45, gave Collins $100 in $20 bills, set up three video cameras, and waited for Collins to buy an ounce of pot from Foster.

Collins doesn’t work for the state any longer and could not be reached for comment.

When Foster pulled into the lot in his gold Cadillac, he parked and got into Collins’ car, according to a police report. The two men talked, shook hands, and Foster returned to his own vehicle and drove away. Foster says the conversation was about how the union might help Collins keep his job after Collins was caught with drugs, but the police watching the two men speak took it for a drug deal. Foster says he detests illegal drugs and doesn’t associate with people who use them.

The police report says the officers didn’t arrest Foster at the scene because he drove away and they tried to follow but lost sight of him. The police waited six days to arrest Foster, opting to pick him up at work around 10:45 a.m. on Sept. 10, 2003.

At DHS, Foster was “suspended pending judicial verdict” – a bureaucratic phrase meaning he couldn’t work until the result of his trial came back.

During Foster’s trial, the police were forced to admit the video they took of the supposed transaction didn’t actually show any transaction taking place, despite the report stating affirmatively that Foster had sold “Mike Strong” about an ounce of pot. Likewise, the police had to admit that they didn’t have audio of the supposed deal, they didn’t think to fingerprint the bag of pot, and they didn’t recover from Foster the $100 that “Strong” supposedly paid for the pot. They didn’t even record Foster’s interrogation or get him to sign a confession. In December 2005, a jury found Foster not guilty.

Jason Henderson, the special agent who oversaw the surveillance leading to Foster’s arrest, still works for ISP. An Illinois State Police spokesman was still attempting to reach Henderson for comment at press time.

Henderson also worked on another case involving a DHS worker accused by Collins of selling drugs on state time. On Aug. 19, 2003, Henderson and other ISP agents fitted Collins with a recording device and sent him to meet DHS employee David Hawkes for lunch at Tai Pan Chinese Restaurant, 2636 Adlai Stevenson Dr. The transcript of the recording shows them discussing Hawkes selling Collins a quarter pound of pot for $800 at a later date, before the two men left the restaurant and Collins gave Hawkes $200 for an ounce of pot – curiously twice the price of the pot Collins supposedly bought from Foster a few weeks later.

In contrast to Foster’s case, Hawkes’ case was a slam dunk for the state. Hawkes pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay fines and spend 180 days in the Sangamon County Jail, with two years of probation.

When James Foster tried to return to work following his acquittal, he found that his suspension “pending judicial verdict” had morphed into a suspension pending a DHS investigation. Despite a judge’s order that the worthless evidence in his criminal trial be destroyed, the videos somehow found their way to DHS, where they were used as evidence against Foster once more.

The department charged Foster with conduct unbecoming a state employee on the basis that he admitted to selling drugs on state time, which Foster denies that he admitted. Though the official police report claims Foster admitted during interrogation to selling Collins $20 worth of pot in a previous incident that happened years earlier, Foster claims what he actually told police was that Collins had tried to sell him pot and Foster declined. With no audio or video recording of the interrogation, it came down to the officers’ word against Foster’s.

DHS also claimed Foster had improperly used a sick day on the day of the supposed drug deal, but a department document shows Foster’s sick time was approved that day, and the department offered no evidence that Foster wasn’t actually sick.

Foster wrote a detailed and eloquent response to the DHS charges against him, including character references from several other workers and a sworn statement by a former DHS worker saying Byron Collins had approached her to help him frame Foster to take heat off of himself for a separate drug-related incident.

During DHS’ investigation, the department put Foster on unpaid leave while Foster and the union fought the charges. The case went to arbitration, and Foster, financially strapped from being on unpaid leave, finally tendered his resignation in February 2007 in exchange for partial back pay that he says he still hasn’t received.

Why does any of this matter 10 years after the supposed drug deal that never happened? Most of the people Foster alleges conspired against him have moved on from working for state government, but Foster is still trying to clear his name over an incident that he says ruined his life. He filed a federal lawsuit in 2007 against several DHS employees, including former DHS director Carol Adams, who he believes conspired to silence him over the building investigations he conducted for the union. Foster claimed he was fired in violation of his free speech rights, but Judge Richard Mills of the U.S. District Court in Springfield ruled that Foster had no proof that the loss of his job was connected to his building investigations. The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld Mills’ ruling on appeal in July 2012. Foster decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because of the cost and the very slim chance that the court would hear his case.

Despite what happened and the toll it took on Foster’s emotional health, he remains busy and in good spirits, thanks to his family and his faith. He’s involved in several community advocacy projects, and he’s working on a book about his experience.  

“Just because people of that character and ilk have their own methods doesn’t dissuade me from my beliefs, passions and convictions,” Foster said. “There are those who do not have the capacity or voice to speak out against egregious conduct such as this. God has given me the duty to speak. … Right matters, and it should be something that everybody in a position of leadership should seek out.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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