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Wednesday, July 9, 2008 10:01 pm

Something special

A look at the unusual way Illinois prosecutes people with connections — and the Springfield attorney whose job it is to treat them just like you

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PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

A Sangamon County public official gets caught in a cocaine scandal. The state’s attorney can’t handle such a high-profile case himself: No matter what the legal outcome, critics will claim that he gave his buddy some kind of sweet deal. So the state’s attorney pitches this hot potato to somebody else: Special Prosecutor Charles Zalar. Sound familiar? This scenario first played out way back in 1989, when then-Associate Circuit Judge Philip Schickedanz crashed his Pontiac Firebird into a fence near the VFW Hall on Old Jacksonville Road. Law-enforcement officers discovered that His Honor was not only drunk (more than twice the legal limit, in fact) but also in possession of two-tenths of a gram of cocaine. Schickedanz resigned his bench and pleaded guilty. He served his sentence, completed chemical-dependency treatment, and started working as a private-practice defense attorney. His problems with drugs and alcohol, however, returned to haunt him, eventually resulting in the suspension of his law license. Schickedanz died of natural causes in 2006. But despite his personal tragedies, the former judge left an indelible mark on Illinois justice. His crime was one of two cases that led to the creation of a special-prosecution unit at the Office of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor — a squad of five seasoned attorneys, supervised by Zalar, who travel the state, taking the tar babies no one else wants to touch. In less populous southern counties, a special prosecutor might ride in to second-chair for the local state’s attorney confronting his or her first murder trial. In Sangamon County, where prosecutors aren’t flustered by felonies, the SAAP workload consists mainly of piddling cases called “conflicts” — mostly misdemeanors for which Zalar’s presence is needed not because of the complexity of the crime but rather because of the person accused of committing it. Illinois Times obtained a list of cases referred to the SAAP by Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt over the past decade. It contains a couple of postconviction appeals and a handful of high-profile investigations (the cocaine ring, allegations against two Springfield police detectives, the Child Advocacy Center executive accused of theft and forgery, another county official charged with shoplifting), but the rest fall into the fuzzy realm where some lowly assistant recognized a name and realized that the case had the potential to put the office in a pickle. There are names of otherwise anonymous courthouse clerks and secretaries, their spouses, offspring, and significant others, whose drunken-driving arrests, property crimes, and petty criminal misadventures got outsourced to the SAAP. Then there are names that would raise eyebrows outside the courthouse — Sangamon County Board members, park-board members, a few law-enforcement officers, and immediate family members of at least three different circuit-court judges. More like a who’s-who than a whodunit, this list suggests that the term “special prosecutor” is short for “prosecutor of people who have special connections.” But just because their cases got handed to a special prosecutor doesn’t mean that these people got special treatment.
Like the horseshoe sandwich or the foodless faux fundraiser, this statewide special-prosecution unit is an invention unique to Illinois. In other states, conflict cases are typically farmed out to a rotating lineup of assistant prosecutors in neighboring jurisdictions or to an assistant in the state attorney general’s office. Here, most conflicts get sent to the SAAP — with the approval of both the judge and the state attorney general. Confused? You’re in good company. “A lot of the judges think we’re assistant attorney generals. I mean, I’ve done cases in counties I can’t tell you how long where the judge thinks that I’m an assistant AG. They’ve never heard of us,” Zalar says, “or they’ve heard of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor but they don’t realize we work for SAAP. I think. I don’t know. It’s either that or they have brain farts or something.”
What special prosecutors do is no less confounding. The word “conflict” doesn’t appear in the SAAP’s enabling statute, and even if it did the definition would be nebulous. There are “true conflicts” or “conflicts per se,” which arise when a public defender or popular defense attorney gets elected or appointed state’s attorney, pitting the new prosecutor against his or her own former clients. Both the SAAP and the attorney general’s office have handled hundreds of these conflicts in rural counties such as Knox, Lee, and Fayette.
Charles Zalar (left) is the administrator of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutors’ Special Prosecution Unit. Patrick Delfino is assistant director of SAAP.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

Less obvious, but no less plentiful, are cases that might carry a whiff of conflict, such as when a state’s attorney must charge a personal friend, relative, employee, or colleague. Though these cases bear just the appearance of impropriety, Zalar (the name rhymes with “dollar”) says that they dominate his workload. “Let’s say one of the state’s attorney’s relatives gets accused of something. It’s going to look like heck for him to prosecute it,” he says. “He may give that person the same deal that anybody else would get, but simply because it’s his relative [people] are going to say, ‘Oh, he got a special deal!’
“Joe Aiello is just an example. He’s a Republican county official,” Zalar says, referring to the Sangamon County clerk. “If John Schmidt would’ve tried to prosecute him, anything he did would’ve been wrong, from the public’s perspective, regardless of whether it was true. The appearance is frequently more important than the reality.”

Aiello is just one of an embarrassingly long list of county employees whose names surfaced during a federal cocaine investigation that occupied the attention of local media for much of 2006. Now that the investigation seems to be winding down, cynical callers on radio talk shows, anonymous commentators on newspaper Web sites, and of course Ron Stradt, a Democrat campaigning for Schmidt’s job as state’s attorney, are asking why no charges were filed against anybody who had access to the staff elevators at the courthouse. Little-known fact: Zalar did prosecute Aiello, in February 2006, just as the cocaine scandal was hitting the news. The case simply never hit the mainstream media — probably because it involved a mere traffic violation: exceeding the speed limit by 11 to 14 miles per hour in a school zone. (Aiello had to pay a $200 fine.) You know you’re special when Zalar gets appointed to prosecute your speeding ticket. He doesn’t do many (counting Aiello, only three in the past 10 years), although most of the cases that fall into his lap are, by his own description, “Mickey Mouse little things that are not very time-consuming.”
Zalar has prosecuted Schmidt’s assistant prosecutors, such as Dwayne Gab, who caught a 30-day supervision for failure to reduce speed, and Chad Turner, who apparently doesn’t believe in carrying his insurance card or vehicle registration, obeying the speed limit, using his turn signal, or wearing his seat belt (his charges before 2003 were not sent to Zalar). Some of the cases Schmidt gave Zalar hit close to home: the 2003 driving-under-the-influence charge against the ex-girlfriend of his then-first-assistant, Steve Weinhoeft; two shoplifting cases against the former director of the Sangamon County victim-witness program, Nancy McVey; and multiple charges against his own cousins Paul and Christian Schmidt, affectionately known around the state’s attorney’s office as “the battling Schmidt brothers.”
Zalar has prosecuted a Secretary of State cop for public indecency, a judge’s son for domestic battery, another judge’s wife for a fender-bender, a former county board member for possession of a controlled substance, a former assistant prosecutor for improper turn signal, the son of an SPD cop for criminal damage to property, and DUIs against so many well-connected folk, you’d think he had personally set up a sobriety checkpoint at the exit of a golf outing: County Board members Clyde Bunch, whose 1998 case was dismissed in exchange for a guilty plea on improper turn signal; then-Springfield Park District Board member Frank Lesko, whose 2004 case resulted in a $795 fine and a year under supervision; Robert Guy III, an usher at Schmidt’s wedding (his case was dismissed); Beth Maurer, wife of former attorney John Maurer (she got 18 months of court supervision and paid $785 in fines); and Nick Madonia, son of the late Ald. Tom Madonia and brother of former assistant prosecutor John “Mo” Madonia (Nick pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and paid $300 in fines). Looking for a pattern here? Don’t bother. Even if it were possible to determine how close to the trunk of a family tree a defendant needs to be to qualify as a “conflict,” there’s another, more mysterious calculus after that, because some people constitute a conflict for certain crimes at certain times, but not at other times or for different charges. For example, when Beth Maurer was charged with DUI in 2002, her case was handed over to Zalar. She paid the customary fine, but got 18 months of court supervision — about six months longer than the average. When she got another DUI, in 2005, the case was dismissed by Schmidt’s office. The difference may have hinged on her husband’s position; by 2005 he was long gone from Schmidt’s office and into his own private practice.

For a man charged with the thankless task of handling everyone else’s no-win cases, Zalar has a remarkably healthy sense of humor. He joined the SAAP in 1988 after having served three terms as state’s attorney in Grundy County because, he says, around age 40, he realized he didn’t want to depend on voters for his livelihood. Because his team of special prosecutors is made up of other former state’s attorneys — some of whom landed at the SAAP after losing an election — they have been nicknamed “the Home for Wayward Prosecutors.” Special Prosecutor Michael Vujovich, for example, was in charge of felony cases at the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office until a 1998 Illinois Supreme Court decision freed a murder suspect because Vujovich hadn’t provided a speedy trial. Former Morgan County State’s Attorney Charles Colburn, whom Zalar calls “as competent a medium- to small-county prosecutor as you’re going to run into,” joined the SAAP in 2004 after he ran for judge and lost. Tim Huyett, the on-again, off-again Logan County state’s attorney, joined the SAAP special-prosecution unit in 1996, left when he was reelected in 2000, and is bound to return to the SAAP later this year, having lost in the primary election for state’s attorney. They’re each paid $108,000 to $120,000 per year, according to assistant director Patrick Delfino. Zalar’s cell-phone ringtone is Franz von Suppe’s “Light Cavalry Overture,” set at maximum volume because at age 61, he says, “I can’t hear squat.” He plans to stay with the SAAP another six years, partly because he enjoys his job and partly because he enjoys the salary. “The state pension system sucks,” he says, “and you can quote me on that.”
By all accounts, he and this job are perfectly suited for each other, because, as one attorney puts it, Zalar has so little fire in the belly. His political affiliation, if he has one, is a mystery to every attorney we contacted, even one whose in-laws play bridge weekly with the man. “He does not go out and seek complicated cases; he doesn’t go out and seek political cases. He is happiest when he’s got a cup of coffee and a case that nobody’s paying attention to,” one attorney says. “But that’s a good thing, because you don’t want somebody in that job with the wrong motivation.”
How he gets cases is pretty much a matter of whim to the cast of courthouse observers, including Zalar. In Sangamon County, for example, traffic violations are processed by the newest, lowest-ranking assistant state’s attorneys — typically kids fresh out of law school who have so many tickets to read in a day, they focus on the charges and the facts instead of names. Even if they do notice names, they may not be familiar enough with the local power structure to flag special cases to go to the SAAP. The way Zalar tells it, all he knows is that he has virtually no control over the situation. “I don’t make those decisions,” he says. “I get an order saying, ‘You’re appointed — Tag! You’re it! — the next court date is such-and-such.’ ”

Attorneys on both sides of the legal industry — prosecutors and defense attorneys — find the special-prosecutor situation mysterious. “There really isn’t a set formula,” says defense attorney Adam Giganti. “If you look at all the cases, some of them are blatantly obvious that they should be referred out. Others, I think, it’s more a situation of caution.”
John Sharp, who specializes in defending DUIs, says defense attorneys sometimes ask each other in the courthouse corridors why Zalar showed up to prosecute a certain case. “There really is no rhyme or reason for how cases are assigned,” Sharp says. The only effect a special prosecutor truly has on the case might be just to make the defense attorney sweat. “When it gets assigned to a special prosecutor, you just are cognizant that, for whatever reason, the case may draw more attention. It puts a higher intensity level on it,” Sharp says. Sometimes the conflict isn’t a matter of favoritism but the opposite. Mo Madonia, now in private practice, was still a young assistant state’s attorney when he became the victim of a crime. Two teenagers broke into his car, stole everything valuable, then used the garage-door opener to try to get into his house. When Madonia flipped on a light, he scared the two would-be burglars away. They were prosecuted by Zalar’s office, not Schmidt’s, to avoid any chance that they would get a tougher deal just because they had victimized one of the office’s own. As it turned out, Madonia says, Zalar gave the kids the exact deal he had in mind — pleaded down to a misdemeanor, because the defendants had no prior criminal records. “I’m a big proponent of ‘one bite at the apple,’ especially when the stakes are so high,” Madonia says. “It was handled exactly as I would’ve handled it myself if I had been the prosecutor.”
The way Zalar tells it, that’s his job in a nutshell: His aim is to prosecute any Davlin, Libri, or Aiello the same way he would any Tom, Dick or Harry. He says one of the most difficult parts of his job is determining precisely what sentences John Q. Public would get for various offenses in various counties, because each jurisdiction has its own customary standards, especially on DUIs. “All I’m trying to do is to determine what a fair disposition is,” he says. If his batting average, which he doesn’t track, looks less than stellar, it’s because he can’t drop certain cases, no matter how weak, because of the name on the charging form. This predicament has earned him the sympathy of some defense attorneys. “To be honest with you, I wouldn’t particularly want to do Chuck’s job,” Giganti says. “Just because a case is referred to a special prosecutor doesn’t make the facts stronger or weaker; the facts are what they are. It may have been a very bad case from the get-go, and referring it to a special prosecutor doesn’t change that.”

In some of these cases, SAAP special prosecutors have been criticized for being overzealous. Two of them — David Rands and Edwin Parkinson — were featured in a 2004 State Journal-Register editorial titled “State should rein in bad prosecutors,” which focused on their stubborn prosecutions of Randy Steidl and Julie Rea-Harper, two accused murderers who have both now been set free. These accusations are balanced by charges that the unit does just the opposite, going too softly whenever special people are accused of smaller crimes, as in the recent “cocaine ring” cases and the charges against former Springfield police Det. Paul Carpenter. But other attorneys familiar with these cases disagree and say that Zalar juggled these hot potatoes just fine. “I think he made the right decision,” says Sangamon County Chief Public Defender Brian Otwell, referring to Zalar’s decision to not charge any of the current or former courthouse personnel associated with the drug scandal. “No prosecutor that I know of would prosecute those cases. They didn’t have any evidence. They didn’t have any dope. You don’t prosecute a possession case when the only evidence you have is the word of a convicted felon,” he says. “The only criticism anyone could make might be the length of time it took.”
As for the allegations against Carpenter and his partner, former Det. Jim Graham, Zalar filed felony charges of wire fraud and official misconduct against Carpenter, but the case was later dismissed by the court. “The whole thing was very troubling,” Zalar admits. “There were some incidents — I’m thinking of one back in 1999 — where I would’ve thought the U.S. attorney’s office might have indicted [Carpenter and Graham] but they chose not to — and there’s nothing I can do: The statute of limitations had run.”
One attorney says Zalar has to take the files “with flies on them — the real stinkers.”
Zalar doesn’t even ask which attorney made that comment. “Funny,” he says. “That person’s been reading my mind!”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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