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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 12:01 am

Missing the money

Computer tampering case resolved, but questions remain about public grants

 Computer tampering charges have been dropped against a defendant in a bizarre court case involving supposed computer hacking at a defunct Illinois nonprofit. Still, millions of dollars in state and federal grants are missing, and the nonprofit’s director has yet to account for the money.

Annabel Melongo of Chicago was found not guilty of computer tampering in a directed finding on July 29 in Cook County Circuit Court. Her case is part of a complex and sometimes murky saga surrounding an allegedly fraudulent charity with an office in Springfield and ties to numerous public officials.

From December 2005 until April 2006, the Cameroon-born Melongo worked as a computer technician for the nonprofit Save A Life Foundation, which was based in Schiller Park near Chicago. Created to teach emergency response techniques like CPR to children, emergency workers and others, the foundation was funded with close to $9 million in state and federal grants, including a state grant to purchase an office at 520 E. Capitol Avenue in downtown Springfield. Several current and former state lawmakers and members of Illinois’ congressional delegation helped the organization obtain grants and publicly promoted the group.

In October 2006, after Melongo had stopped working for the foundation, several of the nonprofit’s computer files were deleted, including financial records. Then-director Carol Spizzirri, formerly of Schiller Park, told police that Melongo had hacked into the organization’s computer server remotely and wiped out the information. The data loss happened just as Spizzirri was facing questions about the foundation’s finances, activities and even her own background.

A November 2006 investigative series by news show ABC7 Chicago revealed that Spizzirri didn’t have a nursing degree as she had claimed. The series also questioned Spizzirri’s claim that the foundation had taught the Heimlich maneuver to one million schoolchildren using public money.  The ABC7 investigation was ongoing at the time Save A Life’s records were destroyed.

Even Spizzirri’s claimed motivation for starting the foundation was debunked. She claimed that her daughter, Christine, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1992, and the emergency responders couldn’t save her because they didn’t know CPR. In reality, the ABC7 report said Christine had flipped her own car while drunk, and it was unlikely CPR could have saved her.

Melongo’s case contained no actual evidence tying her to the destruction of the records, according to her attorney, Jennifer Bonjean of New York. The only evidence was Spizziri’s accusation, Bonjean says.

“She [Spizziri] offered no evidence whatsoever,” Bonjean said. “Indeed she lied on the stand and claimed that certain experts hired by SALF were able to determine that Melongo had accessed the servers and destroyed files. That was a bold-faced lie. No expert was able to trace any intrusion to Melongo.”

Melongo fought the computer tampering charges for eight years, often without the help of an attorney, and a Cook County judge last week ruled that Melongo was innocent. That leaves unanswered the question of who destroyed Save A Life’s files. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has investigated the foundation, but the investigation seems to have stalled because Spizzirri moved to California and has not provided documents to Madigan’s office.

Bonjean says Spizzirri was the only person with the motive and opportunity to destroy the records.

In the course of fighting the computer tampering charges, Melongo also managed to have the state’s eavesdropping law struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court. Melongo had recorded conversations with a court reporter whom she believed had illegally altered court records, and police charged Melongo with felony eavesdropping after she posted the recordings on her website. Melongo fought the charges up to the state Supreme Court, which held that the state law against recording conversations without the consent of both parties was overly broad because it made otherwise innocent parties conduct a crime.

Melongo has filed a federal lawsuit against several public officials, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, alleging that they conspired to maliciously prosecute Melongo and wrongfully imprisoned her for 20 months. She says she is confident in the judicial system – especially because her lawsuit is in federal court instead of state court.

“I have faith that those who masterminded my two cases will finally pay,” Melongo said.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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