New State's Attorney Faced Issues To Resolve From Predecessor's Tenure

Feb 17, 2017

LaSalle County State's Attorney Karen Donnelly

Election cycles always mean a turnover in county officials. Some of these new public servants may see this as a clean slate, but many have to deal with issues from a previous administration. 

The new LaSalle County State's Attorney campaigned against and eventually shut down a program established by the person she defeated for the job. 

Republican Karen Donnelly was elected last November as LaSalle County State's Attorney. Among her duties is serving as chief law enforcement officer and prosecutor. She’s worked in law for nearly 30 years and spent the past two years in county government. Donnelly says her long career in private practice means she likes tackling much of the office work herself.

“I like to get my feet wet, get in there, get dirty," she said, "and do things that I wouldn’t ask any assistant or secretary to do that I couldn’t do myself.”

She was motivated to run for State’s Attorney by a program called SAFE, which was set up by her Democratic predecessor, Brian Towne. The acronym stands for State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement unit, which consisted of police officers patrolling Interstate 80, arresting drivers for possession of illegal drugs, and seizing money and other assets believed to be connected to drug deals. This practice is known as asset forfeiture.

“The statutes specifically guide how that money is spent," she explained. "It’s supposed to be used for drug education or drug enforcement.”

What made SAFE different from other anti-drug task forces was that the officers worked directly under the State’s Attorney. Towne claimed it was an extension of his duties as a prosecutor, and the money his officers confiscated was helping anti-drug efforts. Donnelly says it created a perception problem.

“These are officers that we would ultimately have to call as witnesses," she said. "Would the public perception be there’s a conflict of interest? This officer is being paid by me. This officer is wearing a uniform that we provided.”

Donnelly also didn’t fully buy into Towne’s statement about funding.

“My (private practice) office represented an individual who was charged by SAFE," she said, "and it was at that point in time I wanted to know how they were spending the money they were taking from these seizures.”

As a result, she sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding SAFE expenditures and spoke out against it during her 2016 campaign. Her 2015 primary opponent, Betty Rollardi, had similar sentiments.

Asked about asset forfeiture as a whole, Donnelly says she isn’t strictly opposed to simply seizing suspected drug money.

“I would always, of course, prefer there to be a criminal charge tied to it," she said. "But if it just isn’t there, but there’s been money that’s been heat sealed or vacuum sealed -- and you know they can’t explain it -- then, yes, take that money, but let’s use it for the good.”

She contrasts drug smugglers carrying vacuum-sealed wads of smelly bills with a couple simply carrying $5,000 while driving through the countryside.

“If they can tell us, ‘Hey, we’re headed to Vegas, we typically don’t carry credit cards, we’re cash people,’ these officers around here are well-trained and well-educated, and they can make those calls," she said. "They bring it up here to us to verify what they’ve done is correct and, a lot of times, there’s no need to second guess what they do.”

Despite this confidence, Donnelly says she’s strictly against policing for profit.

As for SAFE, the Illinois Third District Appellate Court in Ottawa ruled in June 2015 that such a program isn’t authorized by state statute. In response, Towne and Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed appeals with the state Supreme Court. The program was suspended until Donnelly’s election, but she says it’s now been discontinued for good.

“The vehicles that were being used as part of SAFE sit in my back parking lot," she said. "They’re not being used. My first assistant and myself are working on getting the money back that was sent from Spring Valley.”

With SAFE out of the picture, Donnelly wants to focus more directly on issues facing the community, rather than travelers on Interstate 80. Part of this involves greater scrutiny of cases involving pornography, as well as child and elder abuse.

“I want to be more involved," she said. "I want to see these cases before we make offers to defense lawyers or the public defender, because I want to know and feel comfortable and sleep good at night that this is the best we could do.”

On the narcotics front, Donnelly has a grant in the works to help set up a LaSalle County drug court. She hopes to do the same thing with mental health.

“The 708 Board has already got a planning grant to discuss the need for a mental health court and, of course, starting next year, veterans courts are going to be mandatory,” she said.

The latter courts help provide veterans access to mental health and substance-abuse treatment. 

Despite her expanded role as State’s Attorney, Donnelly ultimately wants to stay involved at all levels -- even traffic court.

“I’m not there just to be a presence for publicity reasons at all," she said. "I want to be in a courtroom. I do have the administrative side that I have to do, but my true passion is the law, and I want to be working down there”

Brian Towne

Former State’s Attorney Towne, on the other hand, was appointed special prosecutor to investigate potential misconduct in the investigation of Jack McCullough. He was charged with the 1957 kidnapping and murder of Sycamore schoolgirl Maria Ridulph, but his conviction was vacated last April after an investigation by former DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack. WNIJ attempted to contact Towne's office for an interview, but did not receive a response. 

Schmack’s successor, Rick Amato, faces several high-profile issues remaining from his predecessor, including the McCullough case. WNIJ News contacted Amato's office several times requesting an interview, but the state's attorney did not respond.