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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 12:11 am

She changed bureaucracy

CAROL ANN MERRILL March 27, 1953-June 7, 2016

One day, Carol Merrill just up and left.

A state worker since 1982, Merrill’s experience and knowledge at the Illinois Department of Revenue was such that she helped write the manual on how to process tax returns. When she walked out of the office forever with no warning in 2013, the state wrote up retirement papers while colleagues began tidying up her work area. What they found in Merrill’s desk changed the way the department does business.

More than $3.3 million in checks and money orders, some mailed as long ago as 1997, were stashed away, uncashed and unprocessed. So, too, were more than 5,600 tax returns sent in over the years.

The resulting mug shot taken by the Sangamon County sheriff’s office is a picture of sadness, an attractive woman staring deer-in-headlights into the camera. She’d never before been in legal trouble. And she was in big trouble now.

Charged with five felonies ranging from theft to official misconduct, Merrill was facing both jail and the loss of her pension. Instead, she got mercy.

Rather than hammer Merrill, prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain, perhaps the only instance in the history of Sangamon County jurisprudence in which a defendant has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that came with a restitution order totaling $311,000, the sum the state wasn’t able to claw back. The dismissal of felony charges, approved personally by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, came after an examination by a mental health professional.

“The defendant, we came to conclude after quite a lot of investigating, suffered from a fairly serious mental health problem,” says Ann Spillane, the attorney general’s chief of staff. “She clearly spiraled down very profoundly and sadly.”

There is a saying: “Everyone you meet is going through a battle you know nothing about. Be kind always.” Whoever first said it must have had folks like Merrill in mind. That Merrill had serious issues in her life should have been obvious to department supervisors, Spillane says. Her work area was messy, she says, as was her car and house on Yale Boulevard, just down the street from First Church of the Brethren, where she once worshipped and taught Sunday school. She enjoyed Christian radio programs. She never married, never had children. A graduate of Southeast High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Southern Illinois University in 1976.

“Carol was dearly loved and will be greatly missed,” reads her obituary published last spring, when she succumbed to brain cancer, which she attempted to treat by eating right. Near the end, she needed to check her driver’s license when asked her birth date, and she thought the current year was 1916.

“Respondent believes everything is normal and that taking a certain medication (actually cabbage) is helping her ‘lose her cancer;’ she told me that she can no longer take Brazil nuts because they are not helping her,” an attorney appointed as a guardian ad litem wrote in a report dated June 6. Merrill died the next day.

She was not a thief. Despite 3,500 checks and money orders found in her desk, there is no evidence that Merrill stole a dime from anyone. The fault, Spillane says, lay not with Merrill but with the Department of Revenue.

“Once you dive in and see that this is not someone who is deliberately trying to withhold information or steal, you see this is someone who was out of control of her life,” Spillane said. “You then have to ask yourself, what was happening in the agency? … My understanding was, there was paper everywhere. Looking at an office of an employee who is surrounding herself with paper should have led someone to say, ‘We should look into this.’”

No one was disciplined, although Merrill’s supervisor retired shortly after the uncashed checks and unprocessed tax returns were found. And the department, which had no effective way of tracking checks and tax returns, overhauled procedures.

Five months after Merrill’s departure, the department instituted a clean-desk policy and installed 230 lockers that employees must use to store personal belongings. Work tables replaced 125 desks with drawers, and cubicles were removed.

“While we do allow some personal items like a box of Kleenex or a covered cup, all other personal items are kept in assigned lockers,” writes Terry Horstman, department spokesman, in an email. “Employees are allowed pictures. However, they cannot be framed.”

One year after Merrill left, the department instituted an electronic tracking system for checks and stepped up efforts to ensure that checks are deposited within 48 hours of receipt. In April of 2015, more than 67 percent of checks were deposited within two days; in 2013, 44 percent of checks were deposited within 48 hours, Horstman says. Top managers walk through work areas after employees have left for the day, checking for anything amiss. The department now keeps track of documents that are due for shredding and which employees are supposed to dispose of paperwork.

And so, ultimately, Merrill made a difference. While Spillane says that her supervisors should have noticed something was wrong, Horstman says there were no obvious signs. She was known for being helpful, he says.

“Her co-workers spoke very highly of her,” he says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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