More than $3.3 million in legal settlements have been approved behind closed doors in St. Clair County in the past 10 years -- possibly in violation of the state's Sunshine laws.
The settlements range from $900,000 to a teenage boy allegedly sexually abused at the county's Juvenile Detention Center to $1,000 to a person claiming injuries when placed under arrest by sheriff's deputies. The county admits no wrongdoing as part of the settlements. County officials released the settlements to the News-Democrat following a request through the Freedom of Information Act.
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern could not be reached for comment. County Administrator Dan Maher said the county has handled settlements the same way for more than 30 years with the approval and supervision of three different state's attorneys. The state's attorney serves as the legal adviser for county government.
At least 32 settlements were paid out since 2004 -- half of which were payouts of $25,000 or more. However, a review of meeting minutes since 2008 shows members of the County Board never specifically vote on such agreements in open session.
Instead, board members only vote on following the recommendations of attorneys given to board members while they were behind closed doors, during executive sessions.
In comparison, the Madison County Board authorizes settlements of more than $20,000 with resolutions OK'd in open session, stating the amount of the agreement and the type of claim.
For example, the Madison County board approved a settlement in December by approving a resolution detailing the amount of the settlement ($487,500) and listing the related court case.
The St. Clair County motions are strictly "to approve recommendations presented by legal counsel in executive session regarding pending litigation." No further action is taken by the County Board involving the settlements.
After the approval of the motions, the settlements are then finalized between county officials and those pursuing legal action against the county. The details of the board members' discussion in closed session only become public once the meeting's minutes are unsealed by the board. The board considers releasing closed session minutes every six months and does so only after determining there is no ongoing potential for litigation.
Esther Seitz, legal counsel for the Illinois Press Association, said the board's procedure violates a provision of the state's Open Meetings Act requiring the disclosure of reasons for, or other information explaining the nature of, its final actions.
The Open Meeting Act states: "Final action shall be preceded by a public recital of the nature of the matter being considered and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted."
Maher said many of the settlements discussed in board meetings are still in the process of being negotiated, and may involve outside insurance companies.
"Additionally, there may be multiple organizations, companies, law firms or individuals involved in the process, and keeping the settlements confidential is required so that critical information is not made public before all negotiations are completed," Maher said. "If the Attorney General issues a decision that requires the county to release information under (the Freedom of Information Act), the county is held harmless from any legal consequences that may result from violating a plethora of state and federal regulations. Finally, all decisions made in executive session are reviewed by the state's attorney and every six months he/she decides if the information can be released to the public."
When asked why the board does not approve finalized settlements, Maher said "nothing is finalized until all parties have agreed and have signed off, and the state's attorney has agreed to release the information."
Residents or the media could request that the Attorney General's office review of the county's settlement procedure, Seitz said.
"It is obviously impossible to open an improperly closed meeting after the fact, but the (Attorney General's Office) may order the board to turn over portions of the closed-session audio recording and the closed session-minutes, which discuss the attorneys' recommendation and the board's deliberations in connection with the final action," Seitz said.
The settlements include a variety of legal action brought against the county. Some of the claims include allegations of wrongdoing by elected officials, department heads and law enforcement.
Some of the largest settlements are related to detainees at the St. Clair County Juvenile Detention Center alleging sexual abuse by correctional officers. The allegations resulted in settlements of $900,000 given to a teenage boy in 2007, and $350,000 split in 2009 between two women who had been held at the center.
A$665,000 settlement finalized in December was split unevenly between five female employees of former County Clerk Bob Delaney. The women alleged sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other misconduct by Delaney. Delaney has denied the allegations.
Another settlement involved a report from state investigators that concluded officials in the county's Intergovernmental Grants Department discriminated against disabled residents. The report also found the Grants Department Executive Director Debra Moore retaliated against county employee Stephanie Webly for reporting the discrimination to state officials. Webly received $37,500 in 2013 in exchange for dropping any legal action against the county.
Moore has denied retaliating against employees and previously said the department does not discriminate. The U.S. Department of Labor continues its investigation into the department's alleged discrimination.