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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2005 11:59 pm

The good, the bad and the expensive

You won’t believe how much you paid to defend a couple of ISP officers

There are many good cops working for Illinois State Police. Keep repeating that phrase to yourself as you read on; otherwise, you might think ISP is awash in scofflaws. There are many good cops there, many good ones. I hear from a few — some active, some retired and working for ISP on contract, some (without juice) just plain retired — by phone and e-mail and forwarded messages. In blunt and bitter missives, they bewail what they perceive as the tarnishing of their agency’s sterling reputation. They complain about a case in Lincoln, where Special Agent Cynthia Robbins and Master Sgt. Rebecca Dewitt-Early violated the Miranda rights of Louis Russo II — a 21-year-old man suspected of killing his 3-month-old daughter — so many times that his confession and indictment had to be thrown out. They complain about a case in Fairview Heights, where Lt. Col. Rich Woods cold-cocked an acquaintance in a Blockbuster (pun unavoidable) video store on Aug. 13 and has so far escaped discipline. And, of course, they complain about the case in Champaign, where a federal jury found Capt. Steve Fermon and Lt. Col. Diane Carper had retaliated against then-Lt. Michale Callahan due to his efforts to re-open a murder investigation he believed had sent two innocent men to prison. Well, wait. I should clarify: They don’t complain about the actions of Robbins or Dewitt-Early or Woods, Carper, or Fermon as much as they complain about the hierarchy that has let them all skate. In the Lincoln case, for example, special prosecutor David Rands was set to indict Dewitt-Early, and Robbins, along with Sgt. Angela Grable and Lt. Carlo Jiannoni — who just happened to be both Robbins’ supervisor and her live-in boyfriend — on charges of obstruction of justice and official misconduct, when they agreed to accept administrative discipline instead. The popular theory among the ranks is that these four got a deal because they threatened to spill some very damaging beans on a higher-ranking ISP official. Similarly, in the Fairview Heights case, the Blockbuster victim — whose assault and subsequent crash into the candy shelf was caught on tape — is said to have dropped the charges after receiving an informative visit from another ISP officer (retired but on contract). Had Woods been convicted of battery, he would have lost his right to carry a gun and ISP would have had no choice but to terminate him. In the Champaign case, the controversy centers on whether heads should have rolled the day the jury awarded Callahan punitive damages in the amount of $195,600 against Carper and $276,700 against Fermon. State law requires termination of any policymaking officers assessed punitive damages for violating an employee’s civil rights. Yet the ISP administration has instead fought to keep Carper and Fermon on the payroll while they appeal the amount of the damages. So I’m bracing myself for more e-mails and phone calls when the guys hear how much the four private attorneys appointed to represent Carper, Fermon and a third official (no finding of guilt against him) have billed us taxpayers. Are you sitting down? It’s $685,059.13, just through May 31. Asked why the attorney bills were paid from the state’s general fund, and why the tab for Fermon ($369,023) was more than twice the price for Carper or the third defendant, ISP spokesman M/Sgt. Rick Hector sent me an e-mail explaining that private counsel was necessary since the attorney general’s office had a conflict of interest, and that the fees had been approved by the AG’s office. He didn’t answer my specific questions. “Since the case is still pending before federal court, further statements from any source could taint the jury pool,” Hector wrote. The trial happened in April, so this amount should represent the biggest chunk of the bill, one would hope. Yet, the post-trial conferences, mediations, and hearings are continuing as ISP seeks to lower the punitive costs. The next hearing is set for Nov. 1. Here’s the thing: I know of at least four other lawsuits currently pending in which ISP employees are suing their own agency. No matter who wins the ultimate verdict, the whole purging process that is the legal system will undoubtedly reveal more information about the inner workings of ISP. As we watch from the sidelines, we all need to remind ourselves even this load of lawsuits doesn’t taint the average trooper, the working cop putting his or her own safety on the line trying to keep us safe on the interstate. There are many good cops working for Illinois State Police, many good ones.
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