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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2005 04:01 pm

Cocaine and Abel

While low-level drug offenders wait for breaks, a dealer works for the state

The State of Illinois has long played tough when it comes to keeping drug offenders unemployed. The state’s drug-free workplace statute extends to contractors, who must certify that they’ve taken exhaustive measures to put zero tolerance into practice. It took years before progressive lawmakers were able to pass a measure that allows low-level drug offenders to get their court records sealed so that they can pass background checks and get jobs. “We started off way back in 1997 or so,” recalls Rep. Constance Howard (D-Chicago). The bill that became law in June is strict—and it’s still theoretical. The state hasn’t come up with enough money to implement the statute, and when the money comes, it’s far from a free ride for druggies. For one thing, the law applies only to drug offenders convicted of simple possession—traffickers need not apply. Offenders must also wait four years after being released from jail or completing probation before they can get their records sealed. Offenders must pass drug tests before convictions are hidden from prospective employers. And they get just one chance. A second drug conviction will haunt them forever. Howard says constituents who came to her for help weren’t able to get jobs at McDonald’s, even with a single possession conviction, no matter how old. It makes no sense to penalize a person forever for a single mistake, she explains. To do so only perpetuates the cycle of poverty, fuels chronic unemployment, and encourages criminal behavior, she says. At least one drug offender in Illinois hasn’t had to wait for legislative action to get a job. Joseph Zappa, 45, was working a clerical job at the secretary of state’s office in 1994 when he got busted for trafficking cocaine in a state building. Zappa was indicted after a co-worker at a driver’s testing facility in Springfield opened a package addressed to him and found cocaine inside. Alleging that Zappa had cocaine mailed to him at work at least four times, prosecutors filed 14 felony drug charges, including conspiracy, narcotics trafficking, and multiple counts of drug delivery. Zappa eventually pleaded guilty to criminal drug conspiracy and got a six-month sentence, plus three years of probation. But he didn’t stay out of trouble. In 1998, just one month before he was due to complete probation, Zappa was pulled over by Springfield police and surrendered a crack pipe and a rock of cocaine when officers asked to search him, according to police reports. It was late at night in an area known for drug dealing, police say. Zappa beat the rap after his lawyer convinced a judge that the officer who pulled him over for running a stop sign could not have been in a position to see the alleged traffic infraction. Zappa was in courthouses a lot during the 1990s. His then-wife obtained an order of protection against him in 1997, saying he tore a phone off the wall when she tried calling 911 during an argument, and he removed the knob from a bathroom door when she locked herself inside. At the time, he was an unemployed construction laborer. He was a defendant in several lawsuits filed in small-claims court during the 1990s. A loan company sued him for $6,300 in unpaid debt in 1998. Zappa filed for bankruptcy the following year. Three months later, his mobile home was repossessed. By all appearances, Zappa was headed nowhere fast. Then, a curious thing happened. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 hired him as an inspector in its air pollution division, where he specializes in finding violations of asbestos-safety regulations. It’s a job that could land him in court again as a state witness when the agency goes after pollution scofflaws. “In a regulatory agency, there’s always that potential,” acknowledges Maggie Carson, IEPA spokeswoman. Defense attorneys could presumably undermine Zappa’s credibility by bringing up his criminal past, although Carson says that hasn’t been a problem and that Zappa, who earns $32,980 a year, has proven an exemplary employee. Indeed, he once received a certificate of appreciation from the criminal investigation division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for his work on an asbestos case in which someone attempted to defaud a group of nuns. “I’ve always personally found him to be personally accommodating and good to work with,” Carson says. “From my observation, he does a good job. This is also a comment from his supervisor.” Zappa himself declined an interview request.  Zappa’s good deeds aside, Rep. Howard is mystified—this wasn’t the type of criminal she had in mind when she urged her colleagues in the legislature to give nickel-and-dime drug offenders a break. “I’m sort of confused as to why there was no background check,” she says. Told that Zappa is the brother of Leo Zappa, Jr., a longtime Sangamon County circuit judge, Howard sighed. “That tells you all you need to know,” she says. “Do I have to say anything else?”
Joseph Zappa declined comment. Leo Zappa says he’s “very insulted” that anyone would think he helped his brother get a job. Rather, the judge suggests, his brother may have used old contacts in the secretary of state’s office. “My brother and I have had a very, very, very cold relationship,” Leo Zappa says. “I had nothing to do with his getting that job.”
Two years ago, Zappa moved to have his record expunged so that no one, not even law enforcement officers, would know about his criminal past. A judge in DuPage County, where Zappa pleaded guilty to the felony conspiracy charge, refused his request.
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