Metro-East News

Did Madison County leaders disregard court order? Should they be held in contempt?

Bradley Lavite, superintendent of the Madison County Veterans Assistance Commission.
Bradley Lavite, superintendent of the Madison County Veterans Assistance Commission.

The attorney for the county’s Veterans Assistance Commission is now alleging that Madison County is defying an appellate court’s orders by not paying his attorney’s fees.

The Veterans Assistance Commission is asking that various county officials, including the County Board chairman, the county auditor and members of a County Board committee, be held in contempt of court.

Bradley Lavite, who is superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission, is currently barred from entering the Madison County Administration Building to access his office. In March 2015, Lavite had a mental breakdown that his doctors attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder relating to his combat service.

He was subsequently declared fit to return to work without restrictions by a PTSD specialist at the St. Louis Veterans Administration Medical Center. But the psychologist employed by the county disagreed, and the county then barred Lavite from county buildings.

Lavite has sued the county, asking that he be allowed in county buildings again. The Lavite lawsuit was originally dismissed, but was reinstated recently by the 5th District Appellate Court. Specifically, one of the counts involved nonpayment of fees for the VAC’s attorney, Thomas Burkart, who has represented Lavite and the VAC since the beginning of Lavite’s suit.

In his most recent pleading, filed late Friday, Burkart said the appellate court specifically said the county was trying to impose its own ordinances on the VAC, which is an independent agency. “This, it cannot do,” the court ruled. “The county had already appropriated the funds for the Madison VAC and had no further right to impose ordinances on the Madison VAC in the selection of an attorney for Lavite.”

The VAC is an independent agency. Under state law, the county is required to provide the VAC with an office and appropriations for its budget, but does not manage its functions.

According to the pleading, the VAC has requested approximately $60,366 in legal bills to be paid from its budget, but the county has not issued the funds. Burkart’s bill is dated Aug. 19 and was delivered to the county treasurer, requesting the funds plus 9 percent interest. Lavite signed it before a notary.

The pleading states that the bills are within their budget, and that the VAC supplied a statement of services provided by Burkart in the ongoing lawsuit, but that the treasurer and auditor’s offices have refused to pay. Previous bills have been partially paid, according to court documents.

“It is my hope that clearer minds will prevail and the officials violating the appellate mandate will purge themselves of contempt by complying with the law as established by the court,” Burkart said.

County officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Burkart on Friday filed a motion asking that county officials be ordered to explain to a judge why they shouldn’t be held in contempt of court. He alleges that county Auditor Rick Faccin told the finance committee in a recent meeting that he would not pay the bill, and that the county’s attorney, John Gilbert, was present and did not inform them that their actions conflicted with the Appellate Court.

According to the transcript from the finance committee meeting provided by Burkart, Faccin told the finance committee that he believes the VAC will have exhausted their budget by September due to their attorney’s fees. He said he believes Burkart’s fees are unreasonable, giving examples: He said that in June there was a bill of 3.5 hours to discuss transfer of funds for exceeding a budget with his client, or four hours to research the auditor’s role.

Faccin said that when he questioned Burkart’s bills, Burkart threatened to take legal action against him. “I do not take well to threats,” Faccin said. “The reason that they are over budget is because of his legal expenses. And now he doesn’t want to provide any detail or itemization on the bills he submits.”

I do not take well to threats. The reason that they are over budget is because of his legal expenses. And now he doesn’t want to provide any detail or itemization on the bills he submits.

Rick Faccin, Madison County auditor

Burkart has said the specific details of his work for the VAC falls under attorney-client privilege. His interpretation of the appellate court’s decision is that the county does not have the authority to refuse payment or interfere in what the VAC chooses to spend its money on. He also disputes that the VAC will be over budget, stating that the VAC has an “unreserved fund balance” of $828,332 as of July 31.

Faccin told the committee members, “We can’t audit the claim, because we don’t know what’s going on. I’m not paying it. It’s just that simple. Until he gives me a level of detail for the $60,000 that he’s requesting payment for, we’re not paying it.”

Faccin goes on to say that he believes the entire Lavite issue needs to be settled, according to the transcript. “I have a great deal of admiration and respect for the service Mr. Lavite has given us and our country,” he said. “This is a separate issue here. The money that we’re spending on litigation should be going to veterans. The money should be going to the people that have served, that have provided an extremely important service to this country. Not to attorney fees.”

Faccin said he believes that if they pay Burkart’s full request, they will not have enough money to cover the payroll for the five VAC employees. The finance committee voted unanimously to inform the VAC of that issue.

But the VAC board replied to the letter on Sept. 15, stating that they do not believe the finance committee or the county auditor has the authority to control payment of their bills once they have been approved by the VAC board and its superintendent.

Meantime, Burkart alleges that the county is now interfering in other aspects of VAC operations.

“Most objectionable is the imposition of the auditor’s rule that they will only accept requests for payment once per month,” Burkart said. “The VAC prefers to submit requests for aid as they are received. Some landlords do not want to wait three to four weeks and a vet in need may be evicted. It baffles me that the county chooses to ignore the clear ruling of the appellate court that it cannot interfere with VAC funds that have already been levied, collected, and are in the treasury.”

Madison County Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs has already recused himself from the case. Chief Judge David Hylla has requested an out-of-circuit judge from the 4th Judicial Circuit to take over the case, which has been granted by the Illinois Supreme Court, according to Burkart.

Meanwhile, Madison County has filed a request for the VAC to submit to mediation over the core issue of Lavite’s re-entry to the county’s administration building. Lavite has also filed a separate federal lawsuit alleging that Madison County is violating his civil rights.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald