Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jail Lawsuit Attorney Submits Suspect Invoice

Rockford, Ill. attorney bills taxpayers for call that never occurred—others impossible to independently verify

By Jeff Havens

As the nearly eight-year federal jail lawsuit comes to a close, scrutiny of attorney invoices raises serious questions for which taxpayers and government officials may want answers.

Specifically, one bill, on line 10 of invoice 4813, may be a window into questionable billing practices by attorney John F. Heckinger Jr.—lead attorney in the 2000 jail lawsuit, which resulted in a significant local sales tax hike and construction of a new $160 million jail.

As the nearly eight-year federal jail lawsuit comes to a close, scrutiny of attorney invoices raises serious questions for which taxpayers and government officials may want answers.

Specifically, one bill, on line 10 of invoice 4813, may be a window into questionable billing practices by attorney John F. Heckinger Jr.—lead attorney in the 2000 jail lawsuit, which resulted in a significant local sales tax hike and construction of a new $160 million jail.

Heckinger and his lawsuit partner, attorney Thomas E. Greenwald, seek an additional $185,711 to the $152,707 they have already been paid by Winnebago County. If granted by the federal court, Heckinger and Greenwald will have received at least $343,418 for this second of two jail lawsuits in the past 13 years (see timeline online at www.rockrivertimes.com).

Mysterious 36 minutes

The bill in question for 36 minutes in legal services regards an alleged Nov. 14, 2005, telephone call from The Rock River Times. Heckinger claimed the call concerned the Winnebago County Jail and other undisclosed issues. For that time, Heckinger has asked to be paid $90.

However, a thorough examination of files and interviews with this newspaper’s staff indicates no such call or contact was ever made on that date or dates soon after or before the alleged call.

Two days after the alleged call, The Rock River Times published an article Nov. 16, 2005, in which Heckinger’s name was mentioned. However, Heckinger’s comment was not needed for the article, since the story was about how county officials prioritized spending jail tax money.

Had Heckinger’s comment been needed, the newspaper would have documented the date the call was made, whether there was an interview, or whether a message was left requesting comment. But no such documentation exists with The Rock River Times.

In addition, the Nov. 16, 2005, article titled “Jail tax spending priorities questioned” would have indicated whether Heckinger’s comment was sought for the article, regardless of whether he was available for an interview.

Heckinger avoids interview

Up until Oct. 29, 2007, Heckinger had never returned messages left at his office for comment about articles published during the past several years. Heckinger continued that trend for this article.

Despite numerous phone calls to Heckinger’s office and his receptionist’s indication that Heckinger wanted to interview, he was never available and never returned messages.

Lawsuit partner: 'I'm not going to comment'

When asked whether he examined all the invoices submitted in court, Greenwald responded that he had, and that he “totaled them up.”

However, he had no comment regarding invoices Heckinger submitted for payment. “I’m not going to comment on any invoices [submitted by] attorney Heckinger,” Greenwald said. “You would have to speak with him regarding that. ... I’m not going to comment on anything on his bills.”

Vague billing

When compared to Greenwald’s description of billings, Heckinger’s invoices are non-descript and impossible to verify without directly contacting Heckinger.

For example, for Nov. 1, 2005, Heckinger wrote: “Prep for settlement confer re. jail population issues.”

For the same day, Greenwald wrote: “Settlement conference; preparation for settlement conference, including review of jail population reports; conference with J.F. Heckinger.”

In another example, for Nov. 9, 2005, Heckinger wrote: “Letter from media and inmates re. overcrowding.”

There is no indication as to what news organization or inmates supposedly sent the letter.

In a similar bill regarding a letter, Greenwald wrote for March 15, 2004: “Review letter of Paul Cicero regarding accelerated program; memo to file.”

Plaintiff outraged

In addition to Heckinger submitting a bill allegedly regarding The Rock River Times, Greenwald, too, is seeking a similar payment for reading an article published earlier this year.

Greenwald is billing taxpayers $141 for the one hour he read an article Feb. 7, 2007, concerning Timothy Chatmon—lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit. The article, “Jail lawsuit plaintiff likely to receive nothing,” was published the same day Greenwald billed taxpayers.

Chatmon expressed outrage at the prospect of Heckinger and Greenwald receiving more money in a recent court filing. In the 12-page motion filed Oct. 19, Chatmon accused the court of abandoning its responsibility in the matter, racism, and for the federal court in Rockford to “recuse itself” from approving further payments to attorneys connected to the lawsuit.

Chatmon said the lawsuit was never about alleged jail overcrowding, as his attorneys asserted. Chatmon said the primary purpose of the lawsuit was to address adverse public health conditions in the facility—something he said could have, and should have, been easily addressed without constructing a new jail.

According to Chatmon, the primary issue he wished to address in the lawsuit included multiple use of shaving razors and toothbrushes by different inmates. The razors and toothbrushes were allegedly provided by jail staff.

If this were a routine practice, as Chatmon stated in his June 17, 2002, court deposition, the action could have transmitted disease-causing viruses and bacteria from one infected inmate to non-infected inmates—diseases such as hepatitis C, which Chatmon believes he contracted in jail. Chatmon’s alleged acquisition of hepatitis C while in jail is the basis for his personal claim that was once part of the lawsuit. But Chatmon’s personal claim was dropped from the lawsuit earlier this year. This comes in spite of promises made by Heckinger in a 2004 letter in which Heckinger said the issue of compensation would be addressed after the case concluded “in 2007 or later.”

Chatmon said in 2004 he wasn’t aware, and would have never approved of the 2003 agreement that called for building the new 588,000-square-foot jail. Chatmon described the lawsuit as fraudulent and deceptive.

Law license suspended

Questionable law practices are not new to Heckinger. Some of those practices led to Heckinger’s law license suspension for 60 days in 2004.

Heckinger was charged by the state in 2003 with “unauthorized” use of his clients’ money “for his own business or personal purposes,” and commingling one of his clients’ funds.

The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) charged Heckinger with five counts of alleged unauthorized use of his clients’ funds totaling $12,634.92 from 1996 to 1999.

Heckinger was also charged with one count of failure to separate his money from his clients’ funds, which totaled $199,044. ARDC’s complaint also alleged Heckinger “used the [$199,044] funds...for personal and business purposes which were both related and unrelated to Respondent’s practice of law.”

Link to Mob-connected business

Like Heckinger’s invoices and handling of clients’ money, similar questions can also be asked about two of Heckinger’s real estate transactions. In 2003, Heckinger purchased two properties from Buckley Partners, LLC. The properties housed state offices for the Illinois attorney general and University of Illinois.

Specifically, the Illinois attorney general’s office leased office space from Buckley that in 1999 listed an alleged Mob soldier as one of its three “members.”

Buckley leased the property at 7230 Argus Drive on Rockford’s east side to the state’s top law enforcement agency beginning in 1999. Buckley also leased property at 417 Ware Ave., to one of the state’s top education institutions, the University of Illinois, starting in 1998.

Both properties were owned by Buckley from at least 1999 to November 2003, when they were sold to Heckinger for $4.35 million.

According to a disclosure statement Buckley filed with the state in 1999, one of the “members” of Buckley Partners was Salvatore “Sam” G. Galluzzo, who was identified in 1984 as a “mob soldier” in a Rockford Register Star article. Galluzzo’s name and photo were also the subject of exhibits in the recent “Operation Family Secrets” Mafia trial in Chicago (see “Former Rockford Cop Testified at ‘Family Secrets’ Mob Trial”).

Thanks to Jeff Havens. Mr. Havens is a former staff writer and award-winning reporter for The Rock River Times, a weekly newspaper in Rockford, Ill.

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