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State’s attorney confirms ethics probe of Cunningham, ex-deputy clerk

Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 11:34 p.m. CDT

GENEVA – The Kane County State's Attorney's Office is conducting an investigation into both Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham and a former deputy clerk regarding allegations of ethics and state law violations, according to information released through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Cunningham and his former deputy clerk, Jeff Ward of Geneva, used the county's computers, server and email for election and political purposes during Cunningham's campaign for the March 18 Republican primary, email records show. Cunningham said Ward was a volunteer in his re-election efforts.

State law and the county's own ethics ordinance forbid the use of taxpayer resources for political purposes. Cunningham won the primary and will run unopposed for a fourth term Nov. 4 unless a write-in candidate files.

In responding to earlier questions about Cunningham and Ward, McMahon said his office's policy is not to comment on pending or possible investigations.

But after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled last month that state's attorney's offices are not exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, the Kane County Chronicle filed a request seeking records related to Cunningham and Ward.

In partially denying the records request this week, Assistant State's Attorney and FOIA officer Joseph Lulves responded that "the issues covered in your request were referred to this office for review, which is ongoing. All material is exempt from production pursuant to the FOIA exemption."

Among the exemptions that apply include that it would interfere with "active administrative enforcement proceedings ... [and would] create a substantial likelihood that a person will be deprived of a fair trial or an impartial hearing. Publication of the requested materials interferes in the review process this office is required by law to conduct."

County board member Mark Davoust, R-St. Charles, who lost to Cunningham in the primary, first requested an ethics review by Kane County interim ethics adviser Grant Wegner regarding Ward's emails. Ward had sent them in March on the county server to the Illinois State Board of Elections on behalf of Cunningham's campaign.

The Kane County Chronicle filed Freedom of Information Act requests on Cunningham and Ward's emails going back several months, and found both had used the county's computer and server for campaign and political purposes. 

Wegner reviewed the apparent violations last month, as reported by the Chronicle, and referred the information to Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon's office for review.

In an email, Wegner said he spoke with the state's attorney's office about them. 

"It is my understanding that the state’s attorneys are reviewing all emails, including the ones that I previously advised them of," Wegner wrote in an email. "As a result, there is no reason for me to give an opinion, since the ultimate role under the ethic’s ordinance is for the state’s attorney to review."

Ward was suspended for five days without pay after his March 12 emails came to light. He then resigned after Cunningham eliminated his position.

According to the county’s online employee wage and salary data for 2013, Ward was employed at the clerk’s office as an applications analyst for $47,999.90 a year. He started Dec. 7, 2012, as a part-time employee, going full-time June 9, 2013, according to county records.

In a separation agreement, Cunningham agreed to pay Ward $11,298.42, the equivalent of 12 weeks of pay. The move prompted Geneva resident Bob McQuillan to ask for Cunningham to resign.

McQuillan also went to a county committee meeting to talk about the severance payment.

"To me, $11,300 for less than 12 months of work is not a legitimate expense," McQuillan had said.

Cunningham did not resign, but he did change his campaign so it would be located in a separate, mobile unit, and no longer be connected to his elected office.

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