On the heels of a legal ruling that Kane County and Sheriff Pat Perez were guilty of retaliation against a union court security officer, the county and Perez now face allegations of a politically-motivated firing of a deputy who seeks more than $1 million in damages.
Steve Yahnke was once Perez's training officer. A lawsuit recently filed in federal court says Perez made him a political enemy and fired him after Yahnke supported Perez's opponent in the 2006 election cycle.
Perez successfully ran against Kevin Williams, who remains an employee in the sheriff's department.
Yahnke contends in the suit Perez identified him as his next potential political opponent after the election. About six months later, Yahnke sustained an injury on the job. The lawsuit claims Perez saw the injury as a means to launch "a multitude of fictitious complaints and investigations." Those included the ultimate denial of Yahnke's workman's compensation claim and opening an inquiry into employment Yahnke had outside the sheriff's department.
Yahnke was employed as the part-time police chief in Maple Park and a police academy instructor in his off hours. Yahnke was fired in Kane County, in part, because he did not seek prior approval for that outside work. Yahnke contends he had received prior approval from Perez's predecessor. There are also unspecified disciplinary matters in Yahnke's personnel file that date back before Perez's tenure as sheriff.
In an interview, Yahnke and his attorneys said the official reason for his termination had nothing to do with the real reason.
"Perez was dismantling my resume specifically to prevent me from running for sheriff," Yahnke said.
Yahnke and his attorneys believe they can prove it. Steven Ziman was Perez's second in command when Yahnke was fired in 2008. In a deposition for the lawsuit, Ziman testified he had a conversation with Perez and asked what type of discipline Yahnke would receive for his alleged misconduct.
"I am going to fire him because some day he is going to run against me for sheriff," Perez said, according to Ziman's testimony.
"What we have is invidious, malicious, thought-out conduct by Sheriff Perez," said William Delaney, one of Yahnke's attorneys. "We are very confident we can prove it was political in nature."
They are so confident the lawsuit seeks to hold Perez accountable as a private citizen as well as sheriff. That means Perez could have to pay up if Yahnke is successful in his lawsuit. For that to happen, Yahnke's attorneys must prove Perez knew what he was doing to Yahnke was illegal. The proof of that, Yahnke's attorneys said, is the lawsuit Perez filed against his former boss, Sheriff Ken Ramsey, after Perez was placed on front desk duty following a losing bid to unseat Ramsey in the 2002 election. That suit resulted in a negotiated settlement.
"Perez knows what it's like to be bullied," Yahnke said. "He didn't like it, and I don't either."
Yahnke seeks reinstatement to his old job, back pay and pension benefits going back to 2008 and more than $1 million in damages.
"I just want to be made whole," Yahnke said. "I want my reputation in the law enforcement community restored. When a cop starts explaining that he got fired, but it was all political, people's eyes roll, they shake their heads and say, 'Yeah, right.' I want my reputation back and my name cleared."
Perez said he was aware of the lawsuit, but declined to comment.