GOP nominates Nicolosi for State’s Attorney

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118539095813425.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Jim Webster (R-2) poses a question to Chuck Prorok.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118539098614363.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘City Legal Director Patrick Hayes stressed his political experience.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118539084813425.jpg’, ”, ‘Paul Logli‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118539087921939.jpg’, ”, ‘Philip J. Nicolosi‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118539101714670.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Phil Nicolosi said financing a campaign would not be a problem.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11853911567036.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Karner states his qualifications to board Republicans.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118539139915951.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Phillip Nicolosi does not believe his lack of felony prosecutions will hamper his tenure as Winnebago County’s new State’s Attorney.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11853908238036.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘The board’s Republican caucus established its protocol for interviewing State’s Attorney applicants.‘);

Phil Nicolosi was nominated by the Winnebago County Republican Caucus and Board Chairman Scott Christiansen to be confirmed by the County Board as the new State’s Attorney forWinnebago County. If confirmed, he will stand for election in November 2008.

The protocol

The Winnebago County Board’s Republican Caucus met July 16 to establish guidelines for selecting its recommendation for State’s Attorney appointment by Chairman Scott Christiansen (R).

Paul Logli (R) has served nearly 21 years as Winnebago County’s top prosecutor. Now that he’s been named to replace Judge Gerald Grubb (R) on the 16th Judicial Circuit Court bench, Logli will leave a State’s Attorney vacancy effective Aug. 10, when he’ll be sworn in as a circuit judge.

Christiansen said he’d strongly consider whomever the caucus recommended.

“That, obviously, will add considerable amount of impact,” the County Board chairman noted. “It’s my appointment, but it takes advice and consent.”

Convening just hours after the application deadline had passed, the Republican caucus hammered out details for evaluating applicants for the Republican-held seat. Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes, attorney Phil Nicolosi and First Deputy State’s Attorney Chuck Prorok were competing for the job.

A fourth candidate, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Karner, submitted a letter of interest to Christiansen July 20, two days after the posted deadline. The caucus voted three days later to include Karner in its interview process.

Caucus Chairman Rick Pollack (R-13) was confident the process would illuminate the best candidate.

“I think the merit of the person is gonna show up,” Pollack said, indicating the most important factors to consider in establishing the interview protocols are “consistency and fairness in treating each person that speaks the same.

“I think, really, we need to get our part overwith,” Pollack added. “We’ve got a lot of other county business to take care of.”

The caucus decided each candidate, selected in random order from a hat, was to be granted a brief introduction to present his qualifications, followed by three core questions to be asked of each applicant. A short question-and-answer session rounded out each 20-minute interview July 23.

Voting in secrecy

Many on the caucus favored voting by secret ballot for their preferred candidate, which struck debate among Republicans attending the planning session July 16.

County Board members Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) and Pete MacKay (R-5) argued a secret ballot would not be legal.

John Harmon (R-4), however, indicated he’d spoken with an attorney specializing in such matters. Reporting his findings, Harmon said, “Anything that is not local public business, such as the action of an actual political caucus with regard to a political act is not subject to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, period.”

Because the caucus’s recommendation is not binding, Harmon believed a secret ballot would not be improper.

When MacKay attempted to challenge Harmon’s assertion, he was drowned out by “point of order!” cries.

MacKay had attempted to explain to his colleagues he’d spoken with Deputy State’s Attorney Gary Kovanda that day about the issue. According to MacKay, Kovanda advised against a secret ballot, stating any challenge to it would likely succeed.

Stifling MacKay’s attempt to speak, Pollack explained, “I hate to do this to a fellow Republican, but you’re not a paid member.”

After the meeting, MacKay told The Rock River Times, “They’re having an organization of elected officials who are all elected the same way in the same so-called political party, and they’re telling them they have to pay dues to go to a meeting?”

MacKay likened the caucus’s direction to that of a private club.

Pollack indicated he intended to take the secret ballot issue up with Kovanda before the manner of vote was set in stone.

For legal clarification, The Rock River Times contacted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s (D) office to weigh in on secret ballots.

“They are prohibited,” Terry Mutchler, public access counselor for the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, stated simply. Mutchler added a secret ballot, whether binding or only advisory, is a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

A March report issued by Madigan’s office reports a recent example occurring in Cook County when a group of parents complained an advisory council had conducted a vote by secret ballot.

The report states: “The Office of the Attorney General and the counsel for the Chicago Public Schools wrote a joint letter to this organization informing them that corrective action needed to be taken as there can be no secret ballots at public meetings.”

The group rescinded the secret ballot and conducted its vote in the open as required by law.

Mutchler cited another nearby precedent, WSDR, Inc. v. Ogle County, also upholding a public body cannot vote by secret ballot at a public meeting.

Violation of the Open Meetings Act is a Class C misdemeanor and vulnerable to civil lawsuits.

Returning from vacation July 23, Kovanda confirmed a secret ballot would not be prudent.

“This is a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Act,” Kovanda told The Rock River Times. “Taking the vote by secret ballot would not comply with the Act, and I have so notified the Republican Caucus Chairman Rick Pollack.”

After speaking with Kovanda, Pollack indicated the caucus had ruled out the possibility of a secret ballot.

The cadidates

Prorok was first to interview in front of the caucus July 23, arguing he is not only the most experienced candidate, but also has the best chance of retaining the seat in 2008.

“I have done every job that there is in the State’s Attorney’s office,” boasted Prorok of his 29 years there. “I also think that I’m the most qualified candidate ’cause I’m the most electable…I know, because of the aggressive support that I have in this community, that I’ll be able to raise the money necessary to run a successful campaign.”

Prorok already has changes in mind should he be appointed.

“One criticism that I’ve heard from people,” Prorok suggested, “we need to get more lawyers in the courtrooms.”

Prorok argued lawyers in the state’s Attorney’s office are spending too much time seeing to administrative duties that could be handled by non-attorneys.

Prorok would also like to see other changes in the office if he were to receive the appointment.

“Right now, defense attorneys, quite frankly, are able to get away with murder,” Prorok alleged. “They’re able to get cases continued time and time again for a variety of different reasons, and we’re not aggressive enough in opposing those motions.”

Prorok reports having prosecuted about 90 felony jury trials and hundreds of bench felonies.

Nicolosi was next to present his qualifications and ideas to the board’s Republican caucus. The private practice and municipal attorney believes his administrative skills and 22 years “in the trenches” have prepared him for the position.

“The decision that I came to to apply for the State’s Attorney job is because I believe that now is the time for that office to see some fresh start,” Nicolosi told Republicans. “There are opportunities within that office to improve the process…I know that there are certain key elements in that office that now is the time to review.

“It pains me to see how much crime and violence there is in this community,” said Nicolosi, noting gangs, drugs and alcohol specifically. “The sheer numbers alone has overwhelmed the system, and I believe that the State’s Attorney’s office is on the forefront of working toward getting that system fixed.”

Nicolosi said his strongest asset is the ability to coordinate and get people working together to make the system work.

Agreeing continuances have spun out of control and that attorneys should be spending more time in court, Nicolosi hopes to speed up the judicial system and takes credit for recent changes in the courthouse to that end.

“We no longer have officers sitting around all afternoon waiting for the case to be called to traffic court,” Nicolosi reported. “We no longer have witnesses, and we also don’t have defendants, sitting, waiting for two, three hours to have their cases heard.”

Nicolosi promised financing a 2008 campaign will not be a problem.

As a municipal attorney, Nicolosi has not prosecuted felony cases, but indicated he’d defended “dozens, if not hundreds” of felony cases in private practice.

Hayes began his presentation with a joke about the exceedingly warm temperature in the crowded room, but quickly turned to business, indicating Logli has gained the trust and confidence of Winnebago County residents over his tenure as State’s Attorney.

“His popularity, unfortunately, has become one of the weaknesses of the office,” Hayes stated. “People have taken him at his word, which is fine, but that office needs dramatic improvement.”

Hayes suggests improved technology and “effective performance measures” to ensure attorneys are performing up to par.

“With better tools and better management, the performance of that entity can improve and make a safer community,” Hayes told board Republicans. “They need to exhibit the type of creativity and problem-solving that it takes to be an aid to economic development, and not a hindrance to it.”

Between what he described as diverse private and municipal experience, Hayes believes his tenacity can lead the State’s Attorney’s office through improvements and promised excellence from the entire office.

Looking ahead to 2008, Hayes reminded the caucus he’d run judicial campaigns for judges Timothy Gill, Janet Holmgren and Joseph McGraw.

“I certainly understand the financial realities of running for office,” Hayes asserted, adding supporters have already pledged campaign finances for a 2008 run. Hayes also touted the successful passage of Rockford’s 1 percentage point sales tax increase.

Karner, who spent 16 years in the State’s Attorney’s office, has been with the U.S. Attorney’s office for three years and believes he is uniquely qualified for the appointment.

Karner, who had the advantage of sitting-in on the interviews of his competitors before also being permitted to interview, took a shot at a comment Nicolosi had made about having learned about the gang problem through his courthouse experience.

“I learned about it at the crime scenes,” Karner proclaimed, now targeting another competitor for the unsuccessful prosecution of Anthony Montalbano, who was accused of having caused the death of Rockford Police Officer Edward Ritter. Karner argued the most experienced prosecutor should have tried the case. “The most experienced wasn’t. The most experienced was Chuck Prorok and Paul Logli. The leader of that office should have been in that courtroom.”

Karner added he is respected by local police departments and State’s Attorneys of counties throughout the region, including Cook County. Although a career prosecutor, Karner also noted administrative abilities, including a supervisory role while working in the State’s Attorney’s office.

Karner promised an effective 2008 campaign if appointed and advised the caucus: “I’m not just a résumé. I have a specific plan and a vision for an office that I care very deeply about.”

As State’s Attorney, Karner would like to have more-qualified attorneys working under him and increase the office’s efficiency through improved technology, which would also serve to increase accountability.

Karner claims more than 30 first-degree murder prosecutions and two death penalty jury trials—one of which was the case of William Buck, who was found guilty of murdering Rockford Police Officer Kevin Rice.

After a lengthy closed session to discuss the applicants, Republican board members emerged having decided not to vote on a recommendation that night.

June 24, a press conference was called by Christiansen to announce his choice to fill Logli’s unexpired term.

Christiansen indicated he’d interviewed all four candidates independent of the caucus, but his conclusion was in line with the consensus reached by Republican board members: Phil Nicolosi is the best man for the job.

Pollack explained Nicolosi’s passion for the job, in addition to his organizational, communication and business skills, gave him the edge.

“It became apparent that one candidate stood out above the others,” Pollack stated, adding all four were excellent candidates.

Prosecutorial background, ability to actualize change and freedom from conflict-of-interest issues were all considered. Because roughly 80 percent of the 704 inmates currently housed in the new Winnebago county Justice Center are awaiting trial, Christiansen hopes Nicolosi’s administrative skills will aid in speeding up the judicial process to alleviate the possibility of overcrowding. The new jail is only staffed to handle 800 prisoners.

“Our greatest fear,” Christiansen noted, “is that this thing’s gonna fill up on us over there.”

The chairman added aggressive prosecution will also be expected of the new State’s Attorney.

Because he has not prosecuted any felony cases, The Rock River Times asked Nicolosi if he considered that to be a challenge in his new position.

“I don’t,” Nicolosi answered. “I have been prosecuting several different types of criminal cases…such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, battery—recently, a theft charge—all charged under an ordinance violation, but could just as easily been charged as a criminal case. Obviously, I’ve not had the authority, as a municipal prosecutor, to prosecute felony cases. However, I have had the experience as a private attorney of handling several jury trials involving felony cases.”

Nicolosi said his role would be primarily administrative.

Responding to rumors of heavy lobbying on Nicolosi’s behalf with regard to electability in 2008, The Rock River Times Editor & Publisher Frank Schier addressed Christiansen: “Mr. Karner clearly had the most experience. Secondly, followed by Mr. Prorok. Yet, Mr. Nicolosi, who’s essentially conducted no felony trials, was chosen. Could you please relate the lobbying campaign and how that affected your decision?”

Aside from one brief conversation, Christiansen said he’d not lobbied or been lobbied on Nicolosi’s behalf.

“I have not talked to any board member,” Christiansen reported. “I have not lobbied any way, from my behalf anyway. Of course, you always hear that as you see people. You know, you get opinions from all over, so that’s just part of the whole gamut of trying to come up with a good decision, frankly.”

Christiansen said he considered Karner as “more of a No. 2,” questioning Karner’s administrative skills.

As for Prorok, Christiansen said he believes the First Deputy State’s Attorney has not delivered on ample opportunities to affect change within the office of the State’s Attorney, since Logli has been serving as president of the National District Attorneys Association. Christiansen said Prorok was essentially in charge of the office and had not performed with the jail overcrowding.

Christiansen argued Hayes, as Rockford’s Legal Director, is in the position he should be.

“Rockford’s No. 1 in crime,” Christiansen was quick to note. “I didn’t necessarily consider that totally a well-oiled machine at this point, frankly.”

Schier then asked if rumored Democratic candidates, Joe Bruscato and Barb Vella, for the 2008 election were a factor in the chairman’s decision.

“It never entered the picture, Frank, as far as I’m concerned,” Christiansen responded.

Nicolosi’s brother Paul is president and CEO of The Buckley Companies, LLC (formerly Principal Group). Christiansen’s D-2 campaign disclosure reports show $31,400 in contributions and loans from Buckley to the chairman’s campaign. A third of the $15,000 in loans was forgiven. Christiansen did not receive any campaign contributions from Hayes, Prorok or Karner.

The Rock River Times asked Christiansen if Buckley’s contributions and forgiven loans
were a factor in making his appointment.

“No, absolutely not,” Christiansen responded. “That was several years ago, I think, when the first go-around—the first election—and that would not be a consideration, no. Absolutely not.”

Nicolosi jumped in to distance himself from his brother’s entrepreneurial pursuits.

“I am not a part of Buckley companies,” Nicolosi asserted. “I never have been. My brother and I have two distinct personalities. We have two distinct interests….My brother has much more of an entrepreneurial spirit about him. He’s extraordinarily good with business, and he took the route that he wanted to go. He never said: ‘I’m doing this on my own, Phil. I don’t want you part of it.’ He just did it. I could have gone along with him if I chose to do so, and I didn’t. And the reason is because this is what I enjoy. I enjoy the law.

“As far as any conflict, there’s no legal conflict,” Nicolosi said. “In my opinion, there’s no appearance of conflict. I have nothing to do with Buckley. I have four brothers, all of whom do something completely different. We don’t always agree on everything, we don’t always work together, so he’s just one of my four brothers.”

Schier then referenced the trespassing case against Stephen Whittington in which Nicolosi had been involved (See “Strange days in court on trespassing charges” on page A1.)

“That case was presented three times for the court,” Schier indicated. “I believe, the first time, with your prosecution and dismissed. The second time, you turned it to an intern with Winnebago County, and the case was again dismissed. Then, it was presented again for a third time and, I believe, an assistant Winnebago County State’s Attorney took that case, and it was dismissed with prejudice.”

Christine Huff, who lives with Whittington, has alleged malicious prosecution in the matter, but said legal costs hinder her from pursuing it.

Schier asked Nicolosi: “Why was a trespassing case…brought up three times, dismissed three times, and how would you answer her allegations of malicious prosecution?”

Nicolosi denied having personally been involved in any malicious prosecution related to the matter.

“I didn’t have anything to do with that case,” Nicolosi affirmed. “One of the parties involved there happened to be a client of mine. When I initially realized that the, I believe it was a complaining witness, was a client of mine, I immediately did what I normally would do. I contacted the State’s Attorney’s office and advised them that I cannot either represent the complaining party, nor can I prosecute them, because of a conflict of interest.

“I did what I believe was the right thing, which is recuse myself to eliminate any question or appearance of exactly what you and, apparently, this woman are alluding to,” Nicolosi told Schier.

Nicolosi argued that was the extent of his involvement with the case and that the State’s Attorney’s office took over.

“Any types of conflicts—those sometimes do happen in the law, and it’s not like the wheels of justice come to a grinding halt,” Nicolosi added. “You just deal with them…That happens on a daily basis, so I don’t find that as anything new and anything that’s gonna be any problem.”

Schier turned his attention to the so-called “Family Secrets” mob trial, which is ongoing in Chicago. Frank Saladino, an alleged mob enforcer and hit man for the Chicago “Outfit,” hailed from Rockford, but was found dead in a Hampshire motel room of natural causes when federal agents attempted to execute his indictment.

Schier then asked Nicolosi, “The 1984 article on organized crime here in Rockford, the Register Star did an extensive study of that, considering your Italian-American heritage and the ties that are here, do you intend to pursue any prosecution of organized crime as we become aware of it here in Rockford?”

Laughter and groans were heard throughout the room in response to the question.

Nicolosi responded, “I intend to prosecute vigorously any crime that’s committed in this county.”

Thanking Nicolosi for his answer, Schier explained, “That’s a question many of my readers have asked me when they consider your nomination, so I’m merely trying to be, as we say, the voice of the community.”

Nicolosi promised to address a number of issues threatening the community, if confirmed as State’s Attorney.

“I have seen firsthand the destruction that has affected this community,” Nicolosi told press conference attendees. “There has been a myriad of reasons for these social ills. The disintegration of the family unit, the proliferation of drugs and guns, lack of education and, as Chairman Christiansen pointed out, a system that is simply overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.”

Nicolosi also pledged his presence in the courtroom—something he says the office currently lacks.

The chairman will present Nicolosi as his appointee for State’s Attorney at the July 26 County Board meeting. Christiansen said he’ll ask for a rule suspension allowing Nicolosi’s appointment to be voted on immediately.

Sights on 2008

Although a transition team is already being assembled, Nicolosi will still need majority approval by the board for confirmation.

Republicans outnumber Democrats on the board 16-12, but that’s no guarantee Christiansen’s appointee will get the nod.

If three or more Republicans cross the aisle, Democrats would have enough votes to defeat the appointment.

Winnebago County Democratic Caucus Chairman Greg Tuite said Democratic leaders continue meeting to discuss whom they will run in 2008, but indicated their decision will be based in part on whom Republicans appoint in the interim.

The most important factor, Tuite thinks, is selecting an experienced candidate who can lead the office through transition once Logli relinquishes his 21-year hold on the State’s Attorney’s office.

Whomever the County Board approves—and Logli for that matter—will fight to keep their job in the November 2008 election.

So far, only City Attorney Joe Bruscato has expressed interest in the Democratic nomination for the 2008 State’s Attorney’s race. Hayes is Bruscato’s supervisor in City Hall.

Meantime, the County Board has 60 days to replace Logli.

from the July 25-31, 2007, issue

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