In a stunning decision, a judge Wednesday declared McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi and his secretary not guilty on a combined 26 charges of conspiracy, misconduct and obstruction of justice without their defense team even having to present a single witness.
Winnebago County Judge Joseph McGraw entered his findings on the motion for a directed verdict -- a procedural move in a bench trial that rarely is successful.
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"The evidence merely raises the suspicion as to the existence of an agreement (for a conspiracy)," said McGraw, as he addressed the counts one by one, starting with the charge of conspiracy by Bianchi and his secretary, Joyce Synek, to use his office personnel and county resources to further his re-election campaign in 2008.
"I don't find that Mr. Bianchi directed his employees to perform the campaign related work on county time," McGraw continued. "I do not find that services or property of McHenry County were misappropriated."
Bianchi sat stoically as McGraw explained the not guilty verdicts for the 21 charges against him, but smiled and patted Synek on the back when McGraw dismissed the five charges she faced.
"I'm a little overwhelmed. I'm thankful to my wife and family," Bianchi said outside the courtroom before shaking hands with defense attorney Terry Ekl and thanking Ekl's associate, Tracy Stanker.
"I will never forget ever in my life what it's like to be falsely accused. I will take that to my grave," added Bianchi. "I volunteered for this job, (Synek) didn't. This has all been so hard and I'm so appreciative of so many people."
Bianchi, 67, and Synek, 62, were indicted last September by a special grand jury that was empaneled after Bianchi's former secretary, Amy Dalby, claimed she was forced to do political work on county time.
Dalby copied a slew of files from Bianchi's office before she left and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor computer tampering. Now a student at Northern Illinois University, her claims led to the appointment of special prosecutors Thomas McQueen and Henry Tonigan to investigate.
Dalby was the first witness to testify in the 2½-day trial. Other witnesses included: Thomas Carroll, Bianchi's former first assistant; Daniel Jerger, a computer forensic expert who examined the computer hard drive shared by Synek and Dalby; Karen Rhodes, Bianchi's administrative manager, who was offered immunity for her testimony; and Nichole Owens, former head of McHenry's criminal division who now works downstate.
The testimony lacked dramatic moments, and the closest anyone came to saying there was a conspiracy, cover-up or obstruction of justice was when Jerger said some 200 files on Synek's computer were in a "hidden" folder.
The main thrust of the prosecution was that Bianchi forced employees to do campaign work while on the job and used county computers for lists and letters to supporters and donors and to track and plan fundraisers. While prosecutors showed some lists were kept on county computers, the county's employee handbook said department heads have discretion on allowing staff to use computers for some personal use.
Ekl called McGraw's decision an "overwhelming victory" for Bianchi.
"The judge got it today," Ekl said. "I told you right from the get-go that this case was a bunch of garbage; it was smoke and mirrors."
In his closing comments, McGraw told Bianchi that going forward "strenuous efforts must be made by you to avoid the appearance of impropriety."
"I do not think a state's attorney should be hamstrung from defending or explaining his decisions," McGraw said. "How you utilize your personnel during an election year is going to be subject to greater scrutiny."
Synek left the courthouse without commenting, but her attorney, Ernest DiBenedetto, said she was relieved.
"I'm happy for the outcome. I'm happy for my client. It's a shame she got dragged into this thing," he said. "For her, a huge weight has come off her shoulders."
While Synek's legal troubles are over, Bianchi still faces other charges.
In February, a grand jury indicted Bianchi, his lead investigator Ron Salgado and another investigator, Michael McCleary, on more misconduct charges.
Bianchi is accused of brokering deals to lessen penalties against relatives and campaign donors on three occasions.
All three defendants in that case are due in court again before McGraw on April 29 in Woodstock.
Ekl said those charges were an "afterthought" and should be dropped if McQueen and Tonigan had "an ounce of sense."
McQueen said Wednesday's verdict won't affect the second indictment.
"We respect the decision of the court (today)," said McQueen as he and Tonigan pushed a cart of documents away from the courtroom.
Asked what went wrong in the case, McQueen replied: "You just heard for 35 minutes what the judge said. I think he made clear what his findings were."