Under pressure from Illinois Times, the Village of Jerome has acknowledged that it is under federal investigation for suspected misappropriation of funds and has signaled that it will release records in the case.
In a Sept. 28 letter to village trustees, Mayor Harry Stirmell wrote that federal investigators are concerned about nearly $70,000 in spending from a drug seizure forfeiture account and have asked that the fund balance of more than $4,500 be remitted to the U.S. Department of Justice.
There are federal restrictions on how money from the seizure fund can be spent because the fund contains money from forfeitures made as a result of investigations by a federal drug task force that includes a Jerome police officer.
In the letter to trustees, Stirmell wrote that federal investigators are concerned about a transfer of nearly $50,000 from the drug fund to the village’s general revenue fund “for reimbursement for previous payment of police officer salaries.” Investigators are also probing an expenditure of $18,335 for police radios, Stirmell told trustees.
“There were grant funds later received by the village regarding the same radios which may have been erroneously deposited in the general revenue fund rather than the drug seizure fund,” Stirmell wrote. “In addition, the Department of Justice has indicated that documents concerning the compliance review can be released consistent with the Freedom of Information Act.”
Stirmell could not be reached for comment. Federal investigators referred questions to the public affairs office in the Department of Justice, which did not provide a response to inquiries by press time.
Stirmell wrote the letter after Illinois Times sued the village under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for refusing to release records on the drug fund. In addition to documents showing the amount of money in the fund and how it was spent, the newspaper asked for records outlining any restrictions on fund expenditures, copies of documents examined by federal investigators who visited the village in June, copies of any subpoenas or search warrants received by the village and copies of any inventories showing what records investigators examined or seized.
In refusing to release records, the village last summer cited six exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, saying that making records public would hinder a law enforcement proceeding, reveal the identity of a confidential source or complainant, disclose specialized investigative techniques, endanger the life or safety of law enforcement personnel, obstruct a criminal investigation and disclose communications between village officials and an attorney or auditor that would not be subject to discover during litigation. After being sued, the village in a court pleading said that the Department of Justice had asked that the records be withheld.
Under state law, requesters who prevail in FOIA lawsuits are entitled to legal fees from public bodies that deny FOIA requests. Don Craven, the newspaper’s attorney, said that he intends to ask a judge for fees, which are generally awarded if public bodies turn over records after being sued.
The newspaper has yet to obtain the requested records or any other documents regarding the federal investigation aside from Stirmell’s letter. However, a Department of Justice official last week said that the newspaper’s request will be answered.
Fletcher Farrar, the newspaper’s editor and publisher, said that he was disappointed a lawsuit was needed to obtain the records.
“We asked for basic financial records showing how public money was spent,” Farrar said. “It is hard to imagine a more fundamental right than to know how public officials safeguard and spend money entrusted to them.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.