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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 08:51 pm

Blown away

Dan Mills bought a few grams of cocaine. That’s bad, if you’re a prosecutor — even worse if you’re the son of a federal judge.

Untitled Document On the morning of Jan. 26, 2006, a co-worker showed up at Dan Mills’ front door and said the boss wanted to see him. Mills thought that this request was a bit odd, because he had the day off — the entire week, actually — and was planning to drive down south and go fishing. His co-worker, though, insisted: He had orders to see that Mills came to the office right away, no time to even shower or shave. Mills didn’t have the option of refusing. He worked as a prosecutor. His co-worker at the door was an investigator, and the boss summoning him was Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt. Mills threw on jeans, a sweatshirt, and a baseball cap and drove to the courthouse, tailed by the investigator the entire way.
The conversation with Schmidt took maybe five minutes: Mills’ name had surfaced in a drug investigation. He could either resign or be fired. Choosing the quieter option, Mills signed a letter of resignation and left the room. That moment of humble remorse didn’t last long. The spectacle of Mills and another prosecutor also named in the investigation being handed subpoenas by federal agents sent shockwaves through the courthouse. Within minutes, the news hit AM talk radio and spread like wildfire through the town. “Two prosecutors resign, cocaine probe widens,” screamed the State Journal-Register headline the next day. For months thereafter, the “big cocaine ring” dominated the news. For Mills, the spotlight burned not only him but also his family. As several news stories pointed out, he is the son of a sitting federal judge, Richard Mills. In an effort to minimize the shame brought upon his family, Mills cooperated with federal investigators, confessing that he had used or purchased small amounts of cocaine on about a dozen occasions over a nine-month span. Eventually, though, his outlook shifted. Promises he relied on were broken; policies he believed in were ignored. He became convinced that federal officials had leaked grand-jury testimony — an allegation that, if proved, would constitute a felony offense. He began to feel singled out, picked on, targeted, as if someone was trying to make an example of him. Earlier this month, when he faced his first formal appearance on the matter — a disciplinary hearing with his law license on the line — he subpoenaed everybody from a former fellow prosecutor to high-ranking federal lawyers. The witness lineup was an all-star cast, with a couple of high-profile defense attorneys, two state-court judges, and one current and one former U.S. attorney, plus a cameo by Schmidt, and a finale featuring a federal judge.  Dan Mills wasn’t going away so quietly this time.

Picture Denis Leary, only without the killer punchlines, and you’ve got a glimpse of 40-year-old Mills. Arrogant, irascible, cynical, profane, loudmouthed, short-fused, high-strung, smartass, self-centered, chain-smoking, ranting, raving, and bitter to the bone, he is not an easy guy to like — nor does he try to be. (If he has any charm, this is it.) The most hilarious of all the rumors ever circulated about Mills was the one about how he returned to Springfield to follow in his dad’s footsteps and pursue public office. “I don’t like working for the public. I would never be a politician. Gawd!” he scoffs. “I wouldn’t run for dogcatcher.”
He had actually made a point of beginning his law career elsewhere, just to avoid these assumptions. Besides, he says, he has always felt like an outsider here, having grown up in Virginia, Ill. — a tiny town that’s the seat of Cass County (his middle name is Cass). He went to three different high schools — Virginia for two years, then Jacksonville, and then Springfield High School, where he took enough full-weight classes to graduate a semester early so that he could join “get a job and be in the real world.”
He spent mornings taking classes at Lincoln Land Community College and afternoons working at Richardson Manufacturing Co. as a machinist. He received his degree in political science from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, then began a series of jobs waiting tables.
“I didn’t have any great ambitions to do anything,” he says with a shrug. Well, what did you want to be? “That’s the whole point,” he says. “I was a rudderless ship.”
A chance encounter with a Republican power broker gained Mills a job in the legal department of the Illinois State Police, where he worked as a gofer. One attorney, impressed by a bit of research Mills had done, suggested that he take the LSAT exam. He scored high enough to gain admission to the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, in Lansing, Mich., graduating and passing the Illinois bar exam in 1996. Law license in hand, he joined a family tradition, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Myron Mills, his great-uncle M.L. Epler, his great-grandfather R.W. Mills, and, of course, his father, who has been a judge of some rank since Dan was in diapers.
For a variety of reasons — including a hunch that practicing law might be more fun out from under Dad’s shadow — Mills moved to Chicago to work for the attorney general’s office. He tried doing insurance defense at a private law firm, spent four years in private practice doing personal-injury cases, and worked for another year with a personal-injury firm. In February 2005 — with his dad retired to senior status — he moved to Springfield to take a $30,000 per year job, working for Schmidt. Mills is the first to admit that his career hasn’t exactly been stellar, but he makes no apologies for his style of legal work. He lost one job, he claims, because he completely discredited a plaintiff’s expert during a discovery deposition, thinking that he was vigorously defending the firm’s client. Instead, he was told, he had moved in for the kill prematurely, before the case had gone on long enough for the client to have run up a big bill. “Nobody had explained to me the art of milking the client. There isn’t a class in law school on this,” Mills says.
This unwillingness or inability to make nice and play along hampered him at the Sangamon County State’s Attorney’s Office, too, where, as the low man on the totem pole, he mainly handled traffic tickets and misdemeanors, at a rate of about 300 per day. That’s a lot of one-on-one conversations with defendants, and Mills developed a reputation for being short-tempered with scofflaws. “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I know when somebody’s shoveling me a line of shit,” he says, “and if you’re shoveling me a line of shit I’m not going to sit there and listen to your lies. . . . I’m here to put you away, OK? You’re a punk, you’re a criminal, and I don’t have to be nice about it.”
Despite this brutal attitude, it was a ticket he reduced that got Mills in serious trouble. In December 2005, his stack of tickets included one issued to a motorist for driving under the influence. Mills saw no way to prosecute the case, because the Leland Grove police officer who had written the ticket had failed to provide probable cause for the traffic stop. There was simply no evidence that the driver was drunk — no field sobriety test, no slurred speech, just the smell of alcohol. After meeting with the driver, his attorney, and the officer, Mills agreed to reduce the charge to reckless driving, which carried a $1,500 fine, and took away the driver’s automatic option for supervision if he got a subsequent DUI charge.
Less than a month later, this same motorist did just that when he hit a van carrying three adults and two babies in downtown Springfield and was discovered to be stinking drunk — at 9:30 in the morning. The crash became even more newsworthy because the drunk driver happened to be a Springfield firefighter. When an SJ-R reporter pressed Schmidt to explain why the firefighter had gotten a reduced plea on his first DUI, Schmidt blamed Mills, saying that he had abused his discretion and that he was being suspended for five days without pay. Mo Madonia, a six-year veteran of Schmidt’s office himself, now working as a defense attorney, represented the firefighter on that Leland Grove DUI charge, and he confirms Mills’ version of the plea bargain. Madonia considered the plea a fair deal; otherwise, he says, he wouldn’t have signed off on it. “I don’t know if Mills was given direction on how to dispose of the case, but if I really thought he was abusing his power, I wouldn’t have let it happen,” Madonia says. The discipline came as an even bigger surprise to Mills.
“I found out I was suspended when my wife read the paper that morning and said, ‘Dan, it says here that you’re suspended for a week.’ I was just walking out the door on my way to work,” he says. “I read the article. Hmm. So much for my side of the story.”
Mills served that suspension the last week of January 2006, which is why he was at home, unwashed and unshaven, when he was summoned to Schmidt’s office a final time.
The fact that two prosecutors were forced to resign became the meat of news stories larded with rumor and innuendo. It not only formed the headline in the SJ-R, it also served as the main peg on which WMAY (970 AM) news director Jim Leach recalls hanging his station’s coverage. “I personally have never seen anything like it in terms of how the rumor mill kept feeding itself. I’d never seen anything quite like it, with people tossing names out with no basis other than ‘I heard this’ or ‘I heard that.’ It really took on a life of its own,” Leach says. However, he felt that there had to be substance to the rumors, because, after all, two prosecutors had been escorted out of the courthouse. “They had a reason to do that. They got fired,” Leach says. The sight stunned the entire legal community and set tongues wagging. One attorney, who asked that his name not be used, remembers Jan. 26, 2006, as the day on which he logged more than 60 “missed calls” on his cell phone within two hours — despite the fact that he was answering as many calls as he could. The next Sunday, the SJ-R published an editorial calling the reaction to its coverage “hysteria.”
Lost in the hype: the plain fact that neither Mills nor John “Jake” Kelley, the other prosecutor forced to resign, has ever been arrested, much less convicted of, any crime. Contrary to popular opinion, this lack of prosecution isn’t a result of their “connections” or juice. The case against Mills simply lacks evidence — he was never caught with any illegal drugs — and relies solely on the word of a drug dealer. This dealer, Gerald Vondebur, told authorities he sold cocaine to Mills and his friend about 10 times and to Mills alone another three time. Each time, he said, Mills’ share was about a gram — a “personal use” amount with a street value of $100. If this crime could be proved, it would amount to a “federal misdemeanor” worthy of a few months in jail. However, such a case would be practically impossible to prosecute. It’s what’s known around courthouses as a “no-dope possession case,” and attorneys compare it to prosecuting a murder without a corpse — technically possible but extremely difficult. Lawyers who have worked in or against the state’s attorney’s office for more than a decade can’t recall any examples of Schmidt’s pursuing a no-dope narcotics-possession case, making it likely that this case would have been dismissed long ago if the defendant was an average Joe.
Mills cooperated with federal investigators, telling them about his drug purchases in exchange for a letter of immunity. His case — along with the other “cocaine ring” suspects (Kelley, former public defender John Maurer, former federal probation officer Kevin Kelly, former bank-loan officer Blair Fein, and Sangamon County Clerk Joe Aiello) — was passed to Joshua Minkler, an assistant U.S. attorney in Indianapolis, after the local U.S. attorney, Rodger Heaton, recused himself. Minkler conducted his own review and declined to prosecute, instead sending the case back to Schmidt “for action you deem appropriate.”
Both Mills and his attorney, James Elmore, believed the immunity letter Mills receied from the federal authorities who ran the “cocaine ring” investigation applied to other agencies under the task force umbrella. Elmore later testified that he was “surprised” when, in July 2006, Schmidt referred the case to Chuck Zalar of the Office of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor. Yet now, more than a year later, Zalar hasn’t yet made a decision on whether to prosecute. He was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment, but in February he told the SJ-R he was “waiting to see what developments might arise out of the ARDC’s investigation.”
The ARDC is the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission — the state organization that polices lawyers. It hands out discipline through settlements or hearings, which are trial-like procedures held before a panel of two lawyers and one nonlawyer. The panel can recommend discipline ranging from censure to disbarment; the Illinois Supreme Court makes a final ruling on each case.
Most often, these hearings are fairly mundane. Lawyers usually ’fess up, apologize, and request a little lighter discipline than what the ARDC has planned to issue (the ARDC counsel has asked for a one-year suspension of Mills’ license). Mills’ hearing, on the other hand, was a whole different atmosphere. Troubled by Zalar’s promise to use the hearing to gather information for a possible criminal case, Mills felt that he couldn’t be as forthcoming as he wanted to be. He dodged questions that he had already answered in deposition and in writing, instead invoking the Fifth Amendment on any question about drug use and citing privacy rights on questions about treatment and rehabilitation. Instead, he presented a defense that suggested that his case had been overblown. His witness list included current U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton, former U.S. Attorney J. William “Bill” Roberts, Associate Judges Esteban Sanchez and Rudy Braud, and noted defense attorneys Elmore and Peter Wise, as well as Schmidt, Zalar, Minkler, and his father, the federal judge. Mills also subpoenaed the SJ-R reporters who broke the “cocaine ring” story.
Some of these witnesses — Braud, Elmore, Wise — were called to attest to Mills’ good character, defined by the ARDC as honesty, trustworthiness, and fitness to practice law. The rest he called in an effort to demonstrate that he had been treated unfairly.
To hear Mills explain how his own admittedly bad choices snowballed into a career-crumbling calamity, one must have a firm grasp of the law as it pertains to conflict of interest, recusals, and the secrecy of grand-jury testimony, as well as the nuances of Sangamon County Republican politics. The best synopsis comes not from Mills or anything introduced in his ARDC hearing but rather from a letter penned by Judge Richard Mills.
His Honor has a reputation as a by-the-book stickler, the kind of judge who upbraids lawyers who dare show up tardy, unprepared, or improperly attired. Even a necktie knot can’t disguise an open collar; “You need to button your shirt so that I can hear you,” Judge Mills will say. His treatment of attorneys is gentle compared to his treatment of convicted criminals. Among defense lawyers, he’s known as “the Hammer” or “Father Time” because of his heavy-handed sentencing. Legend has it that one older defendant, on hearing his sentence, did some quick math, realized that he would never again see daylight, and blurted out, “I can’t do 40 years!”
Judge Mills responded sweetly, “That’s OK; just do as many of them as you can.”
The younger Mills says that his father operated in the same way at home: Not a subscriber to the blood-is-thicker-than-water theory, Dad never cut him any slack. In fact, the son says, it worked just the opposite. “He’s above using his influence, contacting any of the people he knows. If anything, he puts water, or law, above blood. He wasn’t about to do anything improper for me,” Mills says. “Sometimes I do wish blood was thicker than water, but, hey, the old man’s the old man. He’s the straightest arrow on earth.”
The judge declined to talk to a reporter for this story but instead offered a letter he sent to his nine fellow Central District judges. Written on U.S. District Court letterhead stationery and dated Jan. 2, 2007, the letter is a simple chronology of events.
It begins with Jan. 26, 2006, the morning he received a call from Esteban Sanchez, who was then an assistant U.S. attorney, requesting a meeting on “a matter of some urgency” at 9:30 a.m. After a flurry of phone calls canceling and then rescheduling the meeting, Sanchez and then-acting U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton arrived to tell the judge that his son was a “subject” of a drug investigation and that he would be fired from his job at Schmidt’s office that morning. The judge, who was presiding over a trial and had to take time away from the jury to meet with Sanchez and Heaton, later deduced that they planned the meeting to take place just before his son was escorted out of Schmidt’s office, triggering the media frenzy. That way, he heard the bad news from his own colleagues rather than from the radio. In hindsight, however, the judge decided that his son’s resignation was made into a spectacle to bolster Schmidt’s image as a decisive prosecutor.
“In the months that followed, I have been able to piece together a pattern of cooperation between Acting USA Heaton — along with AUSA Sanchez — and State’s Attorney John Schmidt to set up a news conference for Schmidt’s benefit,” the judge wrote. “I subsequently was told by Schmidt that testimony or evidence from the federal grand jury was leaked to the State Journal-Register because he received a call from that newspaper’s reporter prior to his press conference,” the judge wrote. Continuing the chronology, he describes his son’s cooperation with the investigation in exchange for a standard letter of immunity. “In addition,” the judge wrote, “AUSA Sanchez told both Dan and his attorney that none of the information received in the investigation by the U.S. attorney would be given to the state authorities. This agreement, prior to Dan’s cooperation, was later totally broken because as soon as USA Heaton publicly announced that the grand jury investigation was completed, the information that Dan furnished the government was turned over to State’s Attorney Schmidt.”
The judge goes on to describe receiving unsolicited assurances from both Heaton and Schmidt that his son would not be prosecuted. The assurances from Heaton came in May 2006 during a conference in Chicago; the assurances from Schmidt came on June 12, 2006, during a luncheon at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel. A month later, Schmidt referred the case to Zalar, at the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s office. “It is a sad commentary of the broken word of the U.S. Attorney, the failure of his office to honor the promise and commitment of his AUSA in charge of the investigation, the permitting of leaks of grand jury information to the press and cooperation with the State’s Attorney for defamatory press releases against my son who was never arrested, indicted, charged or convicted of any offense,” the judge wrote. “Heaton, Sanchez and Schmidt have reneged on their promises, passed the buck, and covered their backsides.”
He concludes by explaining the purpose of the letter: “I write to outline the reasons why I can no longer preside in any cases — criminal or civil — in which USA Heaton or his office appear of record.”
Eleven months later, the judge has not rescinded that decision. Indeed, when he took the stand as the final witness at his son’s ARDC hearing, he repeated these same allegations, calling what has happened to Dan a “local lynching.”
Heaton, in a deposition, said he and Sanchez had informed Schmidt that Dan Mills’ name had surfaced in an investigation as early as November 2005, but he denied that his office had leaked grand-jury information. Instead, he mentioned in a roundabout way that his office sometimes communicates with “others in law enforcement.”
“It is my belief that information shared from our office to Mr. Schmidt or his office would only have occurred outside the grand-jury process,” Heaton testified. In an e-mail response to questions from Illinois Times, Schmidt confirmed that he had met with Judge Mills and told him that the case against his son would “be very difficult to prove” because of the lack of physical evidence. He denied, however, receiving any calls from an SJ-R reporter concerning Mills and Kelley before the day they resigned. Barry Locher, editor of the SJ-R, declined to confirm or deny Judge Mills’ assertion that one or more of his reporters contacted Schmidt with specific information about the two prosecutors before their resignations. Locher also wouldn’t comment on whether his reporters received grand-jury information, saying only, “We stand by our coverage.”

One of Mills’ favorite riffs is the list of his losses — job, career, home, wife, reputation, and 25 pounds. Each time he recites this riff, however, he ends by mentioning something he still has: his law license, for now (despite an SJ-R headline calling him an “ex lawyer”), joint custody of a dog (a gift from a staffer at the state’s attorney’s office), and his relationship with his father. No matter what the ARDC decides, Mills says, he doesn’t plan to continue practicing law. He wants to move west and pursue a
new career.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.


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