Jail lawsuit attorney charged

n J. F. Heckinger accused by state of ‘dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation’ Rockford lawyer John F. Heckinger, Jr. was charged Aug. 28 by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) with five counts of alleged unauthorized use of his clients’ funds “for his own business or personal purposes” totaling at least $12,634.92 since 1996. Heckinger was also charged with one count of failure to separate his money from his clients’ or third persons’ funds, which totaled $199,044.34. The state’s complaint also alleges Heckinger “used the [$199,044.34] funds…for personal and business purposes which were both related and unrelated to Respondent’s practice of law.” Of the $199,044.34 identified in the complaint, $184,200 was paid to Heckinger by Blackhawk State Bank between June 1999 and September 1999. Heckinger is one of two plaintiff lawyers involved in the federal lawsuit that was cited last fall by county officials as the primary reason voters had to pass the jail tax. Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said unless one of the individuals named in the state’s case “steps forward to complain,” Logli will not charge Heckinger with criminal theft. Logli and Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers repeatedly cited Timothy Chatmon’s (Heckinger’s client) federal jail overcrowding lawsuit as the primary reason county voters needed to approve a tax to build a new $110 million, 976-bed jail. Logli was asked if the state’s charges against Heckinger call into question the credibility of the jail lawsuit and the 1 percent sales tax increase voters approved last fall. Logli said, “I don’t believe that this proceeding has any bearing on the credibility or seriousness of those allegations [in the federal lawsuit].” Logli said the issues raised in the federal lawsuit “have all been independently verified” by various state and local agencies, such as his office, the sheriff’s department and the Illinois Department of Corrections. Logli added that he wasn’t aware of the complaint against Heckinger until The Rock River Times interviewed Logli last Thursday. “It appears to be, from an ethical standpoint, rather serious allegations..,” Logli said. “In and of themselves, they do not lay a foundation for, at this point, a criminal charge. …We’ll just have to see what develops from this particular proceeding.” James Grogan, chief counsel for ARDC, said the commission has the authority to terminate Heckinger’s license to practice law, depending on the hearing’s outcome. Grogan said Logli would have to determine whether the counts in the state’s complaint are criminal. Logli placed the burden on affected individuals to complain before he would consider criminal charges. Efforts to reach all the individuals named in the state’s case that could generate a criminal complaint against Heckinger were unsuccessful. According to Grogan, Illinois had about 78,000 lawyers in 2002—691 in Winnebago County. Grogan said his office received 6,100 complaints in 2002 about lawyers practicing in Illinois–most were dismissed. Complaints not dismissed are forwarded to an inquiry board that votes to proceed or not proceed to a public hearing. Grogan said of the original 6,100 complaints, 430 were brought to the inquiry board–96 were closed at the inquiry board level, and 334 were forwarded to the hearing board. Heckinger is at the hearing board stage. Depending on the hearing board’s findings and Heckinger’s response, the final stage that may determine what, if any action against Heckinger is appropriate, may be administered by a review board, Grogan said. Heckinger has a Sept. 30 telephone pre-hearing conference. All the funds in the complaint were deposited into Heckinger’s Bank trust account. Count one of the state’s complaint alleges Heckinger used $474 of his client’s money in 1999 “for his own business or personal purposes.” The money belonged to Carol Liehr, which was collected from her former husband for maintenance and child support. In counts two and three, Heckinger “used” a total of $4,313.44 of his clients’ funds “for his own business and personal purposes.” In those counts, Heckinger issued a total of $4,895.16 in checks to parties that were “returned due to non-sufficient funds” in Heckinger’s trust account. The complaint does not indicate whether the parties were reimbursed the $4,313.44 to which they were entitled. The remaining $581.72 ($4,895.16 minus $4,313.44) was the balance in count three’s trust account, which was administered by Heckinger. Count five of the complaint alleges Heckinger “used at least $4,595.48 belonging to Bertha [Reedy] for his own business and personal purposes” in 2000. Reedy was incarcerated in downstate Logan Correctional Center and Lincoln Correctional Center, during the time Heckinger allegedly “used” Reedy’s money. In 1999, Reedy agreed to let Heckinger represent her to enforce terms of a divorce judgment. Heckinger’s attorney Robert Merrick of the Chicago law firm of Robert Merrick Jr., Ltd., was asked to comment about the state’s allegations. Merrick said, “No, I don’t comment on pending litigation.” Heckinger was left a message with his receptionist for comment on this article but did not respond. To view the state’s complaint against Heckinger, visit: www.iardc.org/newfilings03CH89C.html.

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