McHenry County Judge Michael Chmiel told a state panel Tuesday that he understands why some see impropriety in his decision to hold a special court hearing to help a political ally and friend's brother get out of jail early, but said he believes he did nothing improper.
Chmiel spent more than four hours on the witness stand Tuesday explaining his actions to the Illinois Courts Commission, which is considering ethics charges that could end with the family court judge suspended or even removed from the bench.
The Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board, the state agency that disciplines judges, alleges Chmiel committed willful misconduct that harms the administration of justice when he held a rare emergency bond hearing June 16, 2007, for Cary resident David W. Miller.
Miller, the brother of Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Bob Miller, had been arrested that morning on a felony obstructing justice charge. Because of the timing of the arrest, he normally would have had to sit in the McHenry County jail until the following Monday morning - spending Father's Day behind bars - when a normally scheduled bond call would take place.
Instead, Chmiel held an unscheduled Saturday afternoon court session to set Miller's bail, allowing him to post bond and go free that day. Under questioning from inquiry board attorney John Gallo, Chmiel admitted he had never before held a Saturday afternoon bond hearing.
"And the first time you did it was for a friend," Gallo said.
"Is that a question?" Chmiel responded. "It is correct what you say.
"As long as both sides (prosecutors and Miller's defense) agreed it would be done, I would do it," Chmiel added. "If somebody was not in agreement, like the state's attorney's office, then by no means would I have done it."
Exchanges between Chmiel and Gallo turned testy as the judge's testimony continued into the afternoon and he was pressed on allegations he misled his fellow judges and the inquiry board about Bob Miller's role in arranging the Saturday afternoon hearing.
"Did you fail to mention Bob Miller because you forgot or because you weren't asked?" Gallo inquired.
"I don't recall," Chmiel responded. "I may have been because it was immaterial."
Chmiel, of Crystal Lake, also testified about his relationship with Bob Miller, telling the commission that he not only represented the influential Republican as Algonquin Township attorney, but also socialized with him and donated hundreds of dollars to his campaign fund.
McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather testified after Chmiel, telling the courts commission she had serious concerns after learning of the special court session.
"I felt it was going to be a problem because I thought everyone was going to perceive it as a political favor," said Prather, who reported the incident to the judicial inquiry board. "I was very concerned that there was (an appearance of impropriety)."
Chmiel, Prather added, never told her or the county's other judges that Bob Miller played a role in setting up his brother's bond hearing.
Chmiel's attorney, Warren Lupel, disputed that his client did anything wrong, and blamed the charges against him on news coverage he described as "scurrilous and based on God knows what."
"Nobody involved in these proceedings complained," Lupel said. "What was done, I think, was in reaction to the newspaper articles."
The hearings are scheduled to continue Wednesday.