CASEYVILLE — Mayoral candidate Leonard Black was investigated eight years ago by the Illinois State Police and the FBI for official misconduct while serving as a drainage district commissioner but he was not charged.
Investigators accused Black of using public funds from the Canteen Creek Drainage and Levee District, where he served as secretary-treasurer, to purchase equipment for his private lawn mowing business. He also was accused of improperly accepting government discounts and not paying sales taxes on the purchase of a $15,000 lawn tractor and other equipment for his business.
Black, 73, who was served as village clerk since 2009, emphatically denied any wrongdoing and said the fact that the issue is coming up now is politically motivated. He faces incumbent Mayor George Chance in Tuesday's election.
"This is nothing more than an attempt to embarrass me personally, and cast me in an unjust negative light less than a week before an election," Black said Thursday in a statement issued through Richard Cain of Collinsville, the attorney for the drainage district.
During an interview at Village Hall, Black said he had done nothing wrong and promised to speak in detail about the investigation after the election.
Copies of the investigation, including reports by the Illinois State Police Public Integrity Unit and copies of a 2 1/2-hour interrogation of Black on May 13, 2005, have been circulating throughout Caseyville. The reports and video were obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act by Village Board Trustee Kerry Davis, a political adversary of Black's.
The drainage district is a special taxing district lying within portions of St. Clair and Madison counties that has the authority to tax people who own land along Canteen Creek for cutting grass, making repairs to the levee and acquiring land as needed. According to financial reports, the district collected $28,074 from taxpayers in both counties in 2011.
According to the investigative reports, Black allegedly accepted a $980 discount intended only for local governments on the purchase of lawn equipment, and failed to pay $420 in sales taxes. He also received a $7,999 trade-in for a tractor he used for his business.
He was also accused of spending $11,400 on weed trimmers, blowers, sweepers and various mowers and other equipment needed for his commercial lawn service that had little practical use in maintaining the district, he told investigators.
Investigators noted they covertly videotaped Black using a blower and a trimmer owned by the drainage district at a Caseyville hotel -- one of Black's private customers. The investigators also spotted the district's tractor on Black's trailer the day before when he was on a private lawn-cutting job.
Black, who has operated his lawn mowing business from his home for 25 years, told investigators on the interrogation tape that he kept the district checkbook in his home, mingled the district's equipment with his own in his garage and "probably" on occasion used many of the publicly owned machines for his lawn business. However, he said that happened only after he had first used his own personal equipment for a public job.
"It is my understanding that a grand jury determined that no laws were broken and the anonymous complaint was without merit," Black said in his statement issued through Cain.
St. Clair County States Attorney Brendan Kelly said his office's files contain no information about whether the case was presented to a grand jury.
"There is no record that it ever got to that stage," Kelly said.
Mahan said the case was presented to former State's Attorney Robert Haida, now a St. Clair County circuit judge. Haida, who is generally restricted as a judge from making public statements, declined to comment.
In the ISP videotaped interrogation, Black blamed a salesman at a Belleville lawn equipment supply store where he had done business for years for erroneously giving him the government discount and failing to collect the sales taxes on the equipment.
"The salesman should have told me, I didn't know any better. I thought I did everything honest," Black told his questioners.
On the tape, the lead investigator, retired Illinois State Police Special Agent Kenneth Mahan, said, "Leonard, there was no way in hell you didn't see the government discount on this and that there was no sales tax."
At one point during his interrogation, Black said, "If I've done something wrong I'll resign off the board. All I'm trying to do is live an honest life."
Black later hired Belleville criminal defense lawyer John O'Gara to represent him. The State Police file contains a letter from O'Gara, asking a prosecutor to notify O'Gara if there would be any charges so he could surrender his client. O'Gara also asked for an opportunity to speak to investigators before charges were filed.
"I talked to the investigator for the Illinois State Police several times," O'Gara said. " I believe that the matter had been concluded and there would be no charges brought."
Black didn't recall how the probe ended.
"I never heard a word about it. Nothing. I'm not a political insider. I don't know about these things."
However, as a reporter was about to leave his office, Black said, "There was no intent. That was it. That's what I was told." He declined to tell him who told him about a lack of intent.
The state police investigation that began in 2005 was turned over to the FBI in 2007 for "additional investigation for federal charges and prosecution," according to the investigative file. The FBI would not confirm nor deny a pending or previous investigation into the district.
Former drainage district president Jerry Davis, who died in 2011, and Black served as the only two members of the district, each earning $700 a month, according to ISP investigative records. An FBI report stated that the district members were allowed $30 per day for expenses, but it was not clear whether that was on top of their salaries.
Black is now president of the drainage district. Treasurers from both Madison and St. Clair counties still notify Black of how much was being placed in the district's bank account, and send the notices to Black's house at 121 Valley View Drive in Caseyville.
Jerry Davis and Black each signed checks on the district's checkbook that was kept by Black, who was a former landlord to Jerry Davis, according to property records.
Under Illinois law, drainage districts must have three members. If the district lies within two counties, no more than two members should be from the same county. But the district only had two members then, and now.
Black was appointed by then-St. Clair County Chairman John Baricevic.
No audits of the district could be found, according to current secretary-treasurer Jim Trucano. The district relied on twice-monthly bank statements that were reviewed by an accounting firm.
Trucano, appointed to the drainage board in 2011 after the death of Jerry Davis, said he had never heard of the investigation. Trucano is an employee of the Collinsville Township Highway Department, which still mows the grass for the drainage district.
Meetings, which are public, are held in the Collinsville office of drainage district attorney Cain and all checks are written at the meetings, Trucano said.
The district is exempt by state law from audits and relies on twice weekly bank statements to monitor finances, Cain said. On Wednesday, he said he was not aware of a provision of the Illinois Drainage Code that states commissioners must file a report each November with the circuit court in both counties listing how it spends its money.
"I'll look into that," Cain said. "Both commissioners do an excellent job of managing the district."
Mahan said: "There was no oversight. They were just appointed and forgotten."