An attorney hired as a special prosecutor to investigate McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi was found not guilty of contempt of court charges Friday, but not before the judge described Thomas McQueen's conduct as "revolting," "unconscionable" and "repugnant."
Winnebago County Judge Joseph McGraw said there was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that McQueen willfully withheld information that could be have been beneficial to Bianchi's defense.
"There is plenty of evidence that the court's orders were violated. There is some evidence that the court's discovery orders were willfully violated. There's insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. McQueen individually violated the court's discovery rules," McGraw said. "This should in no way be construed as an exoneration of his behavior. The special prosecutors and their investigators abused their office and authority and the tremendous power of the special grand jury to wrongfully prosecute innocent people based on evidence they knew was deeply flawed or did not exist."
A bench trial before McGraw was held in Rockford in December. McGraw issued his verdict Friday.
If convicted, McQueen faced up to six months in jail. A complaint also has been submitted to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which also could sanction him, suspend his law license or disbar him.
McQueen left without comment, but not before McGraw directly addressed him, saying: "I know you know right from wrong and I don't know when you went off the path or why you went off the path."
Bianchi was acquitted twice in 2011 of misconduct and conspiracy charges, and has sued McQueen and others for $15 million in federal court. Another special prosecutor, Henry Tonigan, settled the case last year and agreed to pay $157,000 but did not admit liability. Tonigan was not charged with contempt.
McQueen was charged after some 17,000 documents were released to Bianchi's attorneys as part of the federal lawsuit, which is still pending.
McGraw also directly addressed Bianchi, saying he could not give back to Bianchi and others what they lost while the charges were pending. "This prosecution was intended to embarrass Mr. Bianchi and his staff, subject him to scorn and ridicule," McGraw said,
After the verdict, an emotional Bianchi said McGraw's ruling was "a total vindication of what happened."
"Rather than seek the truth, Thomas McQueen chose to follow 'his marching orders' and charge four innocent people," Bianchi added. "By withholding evidence, altering reports and using faulty evidence to procure an indictment, he flagrantly disregarded our legal process. In so doing, he put a knife through the foundation and heart of our system of justice."
In McQueen's contempt trial, attorney Terry Ekl, who was acting as prosecutor, argued that McQueen violated court orders and was dead set on indicting and prosecuting Bianchi.
Defense attorney Steve Puiszis argued it was inadvertent if any witness statements or documents were not given to Bianchi's defense team, and McQueen thought emails were not included in the judge's order.
In the first trial in March 2011, Bianchi and his secretary, Joyce Synek, were acquitted of charges they used county resources to work on Bianchi's re-election campaign.
In an August 2011 trial, Bianchi was acquitted of charges he abused his authority to lower penalties or dismiss cases of defendants politically connected to him. Two of Bianchi's investigators also were indicted, but the charges were later dismissed.
In both cases, McGraw ruled there was insufficient evidence from prosecutors and issued not guilty verdicts without the defense having to call a single witness.
Friday, McGraw pointed out that McQueen didn't disclose to Bianchi's lawyers that a computer virus could have wiped out files on Synek's computer, and that the leader of a political action committee that donated to Bianchi's campaign said it was because of his anti-abortion stance, not because of a political favor.
Ekl said McGraw's scathing ruling Friday confirmed that Bianchi's prosecution was a politically motivated witch hunt. "I've never heard anything like that in my 40 years as a lawyer," Ekl said. "We couldn't be more pleased with Judge McGraw's findings today."