In a final effort to persuade a state judicial panel he did not violate ethics rules, McHenry County Judge Michael Chmiel returned to the witness stand Wednesday, testifying that he was doing his duty as a judge by holding a rare weekend court hearing to get a friend's brother out of jail early.
Whether his final pitch succeeded may not be known for weeks as the Illinois Courts Commission wrapped up a two-day hearing into Chmiel's actions and said it would consider the evidence before issuing a ruling at an undetermined time.
If the commission finds Chmiel guilty of wrongdoing, he faces punishment ranging from reprimand to suspension or even removal from office.
Chmiel, who heads the county's family court division, stands accused of violating judicial ethics by conducting an emergency court session June 16, 2007, for just one defendant - the brother of an influential fellow Republican - and later misleading colleagues and investigators about his actions.
Chmiel, however, insisted he was not doing a political favor for longtime friend - and Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner - Bob Miller by holding the Saturday afternoon court hearing that sprung his brother, David Miller, free from jail.
"I believe that what I was doing that day was doing my duty. I saw it as my duty, as it would be for any other judge, to help out," Chmiel said. "My focus wasn't on doing a favor."
Chmiel's testimony came after Bob Miller's daughter and attorney, Rebecca Lee, gave testimony appearing to contradict some of Chmiel's earlier statements about how the special hearing was arranged.
Although Chmiel told state investigators he learned of the plans from Lee, she testified that her father had already made the judge aware of the proposed hearing before she spoke to Chmiel.
"I had learned from my father, who had spoken with Judge Chmiel, that he would be amenable to holding a hearing if the state's attorney's office would agree to it," Lee testified.
A pair of McHenry County judges testified during the hearing that when they asked Chmiel to explain his actions, he omitted Bob Miller's role.
Chmiel admitted Wednesday that he mistakenly confused Lee's and Miller's roles, but did not intentionally mislead anyone.
John Gallo, the attorney for the state Judicial Inquiry Board prosecuting the ethics charges, said Chmiel had twisted his story to the "point of absurdity." He noted that phone records show Bob Miller and Chmiel spoke at least three times that day before Lee talked with the judge.
"Unquestionably, the evidence is crystal clear, that Bob Miller was instrumental in making this happen," Gallo said.
But Chmiel attorney Warren Lupel argued that while Chmiel may have made a bad judgment, there was nothing inappropriate about his intent. He noted that there are no rules barring a judge from holding an unscheduled weekend hearing and nobody involved in it complained until after it was reported on in local news media.
"It's not a matter of whether or not you agree with his actions, but whether there was wrongful motivation for his completely appropriate actions," Lupel said. "He made a mistake. He should have anticipated the furor that the newspapers created."
The events that led to the unusual Saturday afternoon hearing began the morning of June 16, 2007, when Cary police arrested David Miller on a felony obstructing justice charge.
Because of the timing of the arrest, David Miller, under normal circumstances, would have had to sit in the McHenry County jail over Father's Day weekend awaiting a Monday morning bond hearing.
Instead, Chmiel agreed to hold the Saturday afternoon court session to set bond, allowing him to get out of jail about 40 hours earlier than anyone else arrested under similar circumstances. David Miller ultimately was acquitted of obstructing justice.