Milton Twp. debate: Political crony or valued employee?
Is Ralph Hinkle a dedicated township employee who's transformed a fledgling emergency response program into an army of hundreds of lifesaving volunteers? Or is he a patronage worker who campaigned for GOP candidates on township time and took advantage of his government credit card and cellphone?
Interestingly, it's Republicans -- including a former gubernatorial candidate -- who are fighting about Hinkle, executive director of Milton Township's Community Emergency Response Team.
As part of his $39,000-a-year job with the township, Hinkle has coordinated the training of more than 600 area residents so they can help their family members and neighbors in emergencies. Those efforts resulted in dozens of CERT members providing assistance in the aftermath of a July 1 storm that downed power lines, uprooted trees and left thousands without power.
But it's Hinkle's role as a foot soldier for Milton's Republican organization that have some questioning whether he is doing political activities when he should be working at his full-time government job.
Milton Township Trustee Jim Flickinger last week released an "open letter" to fellow township Republicans asking them to report to the DuPage County state's attorney's office any political activities -- past or present -- "aided by the use of Milton Township time or material resources."
The letter came on the heels of Adam Andrzejewski posting a report highly critical of Milton Township on the For the Good of Illinois PAC website. Andrzejewski, who ran for governor in the 2010 Republican primary, is chairman of the Hinsdale-based political action committee.
Andrzejewski claims Hinkle used his township credit card to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on travel junkets, fine dining and gas. In addition, Andrzejewski says Hinkle made "potentially political phone calls" on his government-issued cellphone during the last election cycle.
"The behaviors are certainly unethical," Andrzejewski said. "I call on Republican State's Attorney Bob Berlin to investigate whether the behaviors are illegal."
Several township sources said Flickinger already has taken his concerns to the state's attorney's office. But a state's attorney spokesman would not confirm or deny whether the office is investigating.
Meanwhile, Hinkle insists he has done nothing wrong.
"I do not need to defend myself," said Hinkle, whose wife, Gail, is the elected township clerk. "I have given an awful lot of my time, my talent and my treasure to the citizens in the community."
The 64-year-old Wheaton resident was first accused several months ago of doing campaign work on township time. Township Supervisor Chris Heidorn, who also serves as the township's ethics officer, launched the investigation in March after Flickinger reported that he was contacted by multiple residents who said they saw Hinkle doing political activities during business hours.
At the time, Flickinger requested Hinkle's time sheets, daily activity reports, job description and other records.
But the complaint was dismissed by the township's ethics commission. Hinkle said there also were two closed-door township board meetings that resulted in "no finding of any wrongdoing."
Flickinger declined to comment last week. But in his letter to GOP committeemen, Flickinger said the ethics probe was a sham.
"Instead of treating my concerns as a serious organizational personnel issue," Flickinger wrote, "Heidorn chose to publicize the matter by filing a specious ethics commission complaint the very same day. He was later forced to withdraw the complaint because he refused to bring evidence against his pal Hinkle."
Heidorn says that's "absolute hogwash."
He said the complaint was dismissed because Flickinger refused to provide crucial information, including the names of who originally complained about Hinkle. "There were no facts to support what he had said," Heidorn said.
It was Flickinger's ethics complaint that inspired Andrzejewski to start making Freedom of Information Act requests for various township documents.
"Typically, where there's smoke there's fire," Andrzejewski said. "It looked like there was a lot of smoke. We wanted to see if there was any substance underneath it."
So far, Andrzejewski has done two reports on the topic, calling them "What's the Matter with Milton Township." He said more reports are forthcoming.
"We think the Milton Townships all across Illinois need to be looked into," he said. "And when there's unethical or illegal behavior, they need to be exposed so those public officials can be disposed of."
Andrzejewski said he examined how Hinkle used his government cellphone in the two months leading up to the March Republican primary and found 137 "potentially political phone calls."
"What's the taxpayer business there?" Andrzejewski said. "That's their (Hinkle and Heidorn) burden to justify -- not mine."
Heidorn said he gave Hinkle permission to make personal calls on the cellphone, which costs the township a flat $25-a-month fee.
Hinkle said he never intentionally used the phone for political reasons. But he added, "I can't stop who calls me."
Still, Flickinger said he believes Hinkle used both his township cellphone and email address to do campaign work.
"It is clear that the leaders of our MTRCC (Milton Township Republican Central Committee) organization not only allowed this activity to flourish, but were beneficiaries of these government-paid efforts," Flickinger wrote in his letter.
Township GOP Chairman Lori Carlson denied that claim in a letter to precinct committeemen. Nevertheless, Hinkle said he no longer carries the government cellphone. "It sits here on the shelf because I am not going to get FOIA-ed for calling my kids."
Hinkle says he also stopped using his township credit card after Andrzejewski obtained copies of credit card records dating back several years.
"I'm not going to carry a credit card as a direct result of accusations that people have made," he said. "I don't need it. I won't use it."
In his report, Andrzejewski highlighted a six-hour workshop that Hinkle and two CERT members attended last September in Springfield.
He called the trip "an excuse" for the trio to get "Jacuzzi suites" at a hotel.
"These guys didn't go down and come back," he said. "They spent two nights and three days in Springfield in the finest accommodations. They went to restaurants and consumed the finest food and the top-shelf liquors. And on day three, they loaded up on gas and charged a final meal."
Hinkle said he's used the credit card to buy supplies for the township, food for CERT meetings and events, and gifts of appreciation for volunteers.
While he denies using the credit card for personal reasons, Hinkle said there was an inadvertent charge in February when he got a hotel room during a personal trip to Macomb.
Hinkle said he showed the credit card to the hotel's staff to qualify for a government employee discount.
They ended up charging Hinkle's $98.79 bill on the card. Hinkle said he wrote a check to reimburse the township "the very next day."
When asked about the gas and meal purchases, Hinkel said he goes to Springfield two or three times a year on township business. And when he's working, the township pays for his expenses.
"I don't go to Burger King, generally," Hinkle said. "I usually go to a restaurant."
Meanwhile, he often dines with politicians, emergency managers or police and fire officials. "And they are not accustomed to eating at Burger King, either," he said.
Hinkle stressed that all of his expenses are reviewed and approved on a monthly basis by Heidorn and the rest of the township board.
"I've had nobody challenge what I'm buying or how much I spend," he said.
Andrzejewski said that all of Milton Township's credit cards should be canceled. He also wants to see a change in township leadership.
"DuPage Republicans must demand zero tolerance for unethical behavior," Andrzejewski said. "The enforcement of this standard means the resignations of Supervisor Chris Heidorn, employee Ralph Hinkle and the rubber stamp township board. Only township Trustee Jim Flickinger has been a whistle-blower."
Heidorn says no one needs to resign because the complaints are politically motivated sour grapes from Flickinger.
According to Heidorn, Flickinger is upset because Heidorn is refusing to support Milton Township Assessor Bob Earl's re-election bid.
"What bothers me is the whole motivation for this," Heidorn said. "It's not to try and root out corruption or to improve township government. It's a way to get back at me. And he (Flickinger) has a friend in Andrzejewski."