Group calls for Baricevic's resignation; he says action politically motivated

News-DemocratJuly 9, 2013 

Booking photo of former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook of Belleville.

WASHINGTON CO. SHERIFF'S DEPT. — Washington Co. Sheriff's Dept.

— About 80 people marched and shouted "Citizen Power!" outside the St. Clair County Building on Tuesday demanding drug tests for judges and the resignation of Chief Judge John Baricevic.

The rally was born out of frustration with a judicial system where one judge died of a cocaine overdose and another faces drug and weapons charges. The rally was put on by the newly formed group Metro-East Citizens for Social and Economic Progress, according to the group's chairman, Lee Otis Griffin.

"We don't have all the answers, but change has got to come and it will come," Griffin told the crowd. "How can you make life-impacting decisions when you're high on drugs?" said Griffin, who served 16 years in prison before a murder conviction was overturned and he was released from prison in 1996.

Baricevic said he believed the group's leaders were politically motivated. For example, Baricevic was the prosecutor in the murder case that sent Griffin to prison. He also sued Belleville resident Rick Brown, another supporter of the group, as an attorney in private practice.

"None of those people suggest to me they have anything but political motivation," Baricevic said.

Baricevic did not attend the rally where a diverse crowd held signs demanding drug tests for all judges and reading "Boot Baricevic" and "Justice Should be Blind and Not High on Drugs."

Baricevic was at the helm during the recent arrests of a former St. Clair County circuit judge, Michael Cook, and former county probation officer, James Fogarty, who are facing federal drug and weapons charges. Also, St. Clair County Associate Circuit Judge Joe Christ, a former county prosecutor, died of a cocaine overdose while he was with Cook in March.

"I'm doing it for those wrongly incarcerated," Griffin said. "We need to bring those cases (tried by Cook and Christ) back and retry them. You shouldn't have to be a part of the Democratic Party to get justice."

Baricevic has been reviewing the former judges' cases and said it does "not appear at this point to have been a corruption of position."

"In addition, I have done an extensive review of Judge Cook's docket and of cases Judge Christ handled, and in particular cases Christ had in front of Mike Cook," Baricevic said. "At this point it does not appear any felony was compromised by public corruption." The judges had dismissed traffic tickets for two people accused of selling drugs to them.

Melinda Hult, Belleville alderwoman of Ward 2, said Baricevic failed as a leader of the Circuit Court.

"Either he knew the judges were on drugs and willingly did nothing or he didn't know and it was his job to know," Hult said. "He needs to step down."

Baricevic said there is no apparent evidence he or other officials missed and many professionals in drug-related fields did not suspect Cook or Christ of drug use.

"Every Wednesday (Cook) had professionals who deal with drug addicts in their professional lives in his court," Baricevic said. "They didn't see anything. Members of the Drug Enforcement Administration, police, nobody saw anything to respond to. He did his job, not to excuse his behavior. This is a situation where a judge committed a crime. He committed a crime because he's an addict and there must be a response to both, and there has been."

Local judges voluntarily should undergo drug testing of hair samples specifically searching for cocaine and heroin use, Hult said.

"Public officials need to be accountable to the people and that's what this organization is all about," Hult said.

Baricevic said the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits drug testing as a requirement for elected office and noted drug tests are not full proof. He cited the example of Fogarty passing drug tests while a probation officer for St. Clair County.

Should he suspect judges of corruption or incompetence, Baricevic said he would report the judges to the state's Judicial Inquiry Board for investigation.

Dallas Cook, Belleville city clerk and Belleville Township clerk, told the crowd it makes him sick to imagine the world his children may inherit -- a world with no trust in public servants.

"Vote for candidates with your interest at heart," Cook said. "Remind them who is in charge -- we are." Also during the rally, members of the group were registering people to vote.

Brown told the crowd state intervention is needed.

"(St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan) Kelly must push to reactivate the (Illinois State Police) Public Integrity Unit and fund it completely," Brown said. "We want action, not inaction, and we want it now." Kelly called for the reconstitution of the unit in April following the conviction of five former public officials in St. Clair County.

The group also wants to meet with public officials heading the investigation within 30 days, Griffin said.

Rev. Larry Rice, head of the New Life Evangelistic Center of St. Louis, and about 20 supporters of his hope to bring a homeless shelter in Belleville also attended the rally. Rice told the crowd he would continue to push for a homeless shelter in Belleville to help local residents.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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