• A whistleblower’s story
Editor’s note: Part one of this series appeared in the Jan. 25-31 issue and part two appeared in the Feb. 8.-14 issue.
By Susan Johnson
Problems with the Illinois Eavesdropping Act have attracted the attention of several different groups and individuals. Peter M. Heimlich is a small business owner in suburban Atlanta who does original reporting on his blog, The Sidebar. His research about the career of his father — the doctor known for “the Heimlich maneuver” — has resulted in dozens of media exposés, including an ABC 20/20 report by Brian Ross. Recently, he became involved in another case that involves a whistleblower and a now-discredited charity.
In January 1995, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about Carol Spizzirri, who, following the death of her daughter in an auto accident, founded the Save-A-Life Foundation, to teach first aid to students. She was also responsible for a 1995 law that required Illinois police officers and firefighters to be trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. However, in February 1995, some parts of the story about the daughter’s death, indicating reluctance on the part of first responders to administer aid, were retracted by the Tribune, because of false information by Spizzirri.
In November 2006, ABC 7 News in Chicago, in the first of several broadcasts, exposed more of Spizzirri’s misleading statements, such as that she was a registered nurse. By this time, her foundation had raised about $8.6 million from various groups, such as the Illinois Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. She had obtained support from several politicians including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). But eventually, support began falling off, and on June 29, 2009, the Save-A-Life Foundation closed down with $152,112 in reported assets, much of which went directly to Spizzirri.
A former employee, Annabel Melongo, became entangled in the eavesdropping law. Peter Heimlich communicated with The Rock River Times by phone and e-mail and explained the eavesdropping connection to the case, which has only been discussed in blogs, not the general media.
Questions and answers
TRRT: How did you get involved with this case?
Heimlich: In 2007, I was one of a group of defendants named in a nuisance lawsuit brought ty the Save-A-Life Foundation (SALF), a Chicago nonprofit with which my father was affiliated. The entire complaint was a string of false allegations which in July 2009 resulted in SALF’s attorney asking the judge to drop the case. …
Since then, SALF has been the subject of dozens of critical news stories and reportedly under investigation by the Illinois Attorney General’s Charitable Trust Bureau and by at least one federal agency, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here in Atlanta.
While the lawsuit was active, Annabel Melongo contacted my attorney. I came to learn that she was a computer professional who’d been working for years in the Chicago area. Ms. Melongo was placed at SALF by a temp agency in December 2005 and left the job in April 2006.
Five months later, on Oct. 31, 2006, SALF founder/president Carol J. Spizzirri swore out a pair of felony warrants, claiming that after leaving her company, Melongo somehow destroyed SALF’s computer files. She was arrested, and her home computer was seized by police from Schiller Park, the Chicago suburb where SALF’s offices were located. She was released on a $10,000 bond.
A month later, ABC 7 Chicago aired the first of four I-Team reports about SALF. According to ABC 7, Spizzirri had falsely claimed to be a registered nurse and pretended to have a nursing degree from a Wisconsin college. She even contrived a story about her daughter bleeding to death. … Reportedly, SALF received about $9 million in Illinois and federal funds to provide first aid training classes to students in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois. But the ABC 7 story included an interview with Arne Duncan casting doubts on SALF’s claims. (Now Secretary of Education, Duncan was close to SALF and Spizziri when he headed the Chicago Public Schools).
Despite ABC 7 poking sizable holes in Spizzirri’s credibility, two months later, the Cook County State’s Attorney put the case in front of a grand jury and obtained an indictment against Melongo. According to a subsequent defense motion, “the indictment was procured through fraud and perjury given by the state’s witness, Detective William Martin. … At both the original January 2007 (grand jury) indictment and the subsequent May 2008 indictment, Schiller Park Police Officer William Martin offered material testimony that he knew to be untrue.”
As the case worked its way through Cook County Criminal Court, an Internet website appeared called The Chronicles of a Criminal Case: The Trial of Annabel Melongo. The site consisted of case records and opinionated commentary. … As media exposes about SALF kept appearing, Spizziri’s organization went out of business in September 2009. Nevertheless, the state didn’t drop the Melongo case. In other words, she was now being prosecuted for allegedly harming a defunct company.
Then, in April 2010, new charges were filed against Melongo under Illinois’ controversial eavesdropping law. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez claimed that in December 2009, Melongo had recorded two routine phone calls with a Cook County Clerk of Courts … without obtaining her consent, then uploaded the recordings and transcripts of the calls to her website. (The site has since disappeared, but transcripts of the conversations are included as exhibits in a Nov. 30, 2011, defense motion.)
When the prosecution put the new charges in front of Superior Court Judge Mary Margaret Brosnahan, she ordered Melongo to be jailed and set the bond at $500,000, an amount typically reserved for people charged with serious violent crimes like murder and rape. …
In response to a defense motion, Judge Brosnahan reduced the amount to $300,000, but Melongo didn’t have the $30,000 required to secure bail, so she was incarcerated in the Cook County Jail.
The state decided to put the computer tampering on the back burner, and in January 2011 went to trial on just the eavesdropping charges. That resulted in a 7-5 hung jury. … Over the years, Melongo has gone through several attorneys, preferring to represent herself.
After Melongo had spent 18 months in jail, last October, Circuit Court Judge Steven Goebel granted her motion to be released under house arrest and to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. My understanding is that she’s now living with a friend and is continuing to represent herself in court.
Ms.Melongo was 34 years old when she was arrested. She’s now approaching 40.
News Flash: Friday, March 2, Cook County Judge Stanley Sacks declared the Illinois eavesdropping law unconstitutional, saying it went too far and could make “wholly innocent conduct” illegal. The ruling was in regard to the Chris Drew case, the artist who was arrested in 2009 for selling his work on a downtown Chicago street without a permit. Drew felt he was vindicated by the judge’s decision.
To be continued …
From the March 14-20, 2012, issue