Metro-East News

Was someone snooping in Madison County offices? Police say broken tape isn’t proof.

Rumpled, raincoat-wearing, television police detective Lt. Columbo, who never failed to solve a case, would surely have deduced that the broken tape had to mean something.

But an Edwardsville Police Department investigation of an alleged break-in at the Madison County Credit Union, located then on the first floor of the county offices building, did not place any significance on the disturbed transparent tape, according to a long-delayed report obtained Wednesday by the News-Democrat. The narrow tape had been placed across the outside of the main door and across drawers and file cabinets by the office’s manager, Melissa J. Maher.

Maher initially met with Sheriff’s Deputy Lora Pohlman on Dec. 16, 2016, and showed her where the tape was disturbed or broken, indicating the main door on the first floor of the building had been entered after hours and drawers to her desk and file cabinet containing sensitive borrower financial data were opened. Nothing was missing. Pohlman described how the tape had been applied, and photographed some of it.

The claim that the credit union had been illegally entered fueled a furor in the county office building. State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons, a Democrat, placed no-trespassing signs on the doors to his department’s offices and told reporters and police he was certain someone had sat at his desk after hours. He told News-Democrat reporters that he had set a trap to catch an intruder but would not describe it. He declined to comment for this article.

After hearing rumors of unauthorized entries, Democrat County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza set up surveillance cameras in her office.

The rumors were that staff members of newly-elected Republican County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler were snooping in offices after hours, a claim that Prenzler has vehemently denied. No evidence has surfaced publicly that anyone in the county illegally entered any office. Prenzler led a $45,400 effort to get new keys for all offices and to replace master keys with a strictly-regulated 20 units. Previously, more than 400 master keys existed.

The Edwardsville Police Department was assigned to investigate what reporters had assumed would be an investigation throughout the building. But that did not happen, said Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keeven. Only the credit union was probed. The broken tape is mentioned in their report but no conclusion is drawn as to its significance. The report also does not refer to fingerprinting of the credit union’s desk and file cabinet.

Two Edwardsville investigators, Sgt. Michael Lybarger and Detective Derrick Fitzgerald, interviewed then-county administrator Steven Adler. According to their report, Adler asked if he was a target and said if he was, he would not be interviewed. The report states that Adler then changed his mind and said he and Doug Hulme, Prenzler’s chief of staff, had been in some offices. On Thursday, Adler said all he could remember is that the purpose of going into some offices was to find office space for a county employee, and added that the entries had been primarily made during business hours.

“The allegation that someone went into Gibbons’ office after hours is political gamesmanship at its finest,” Adler said on Thursday. “It’s like the three bears: ‘Someone has been sitting in my chair.’”

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Keeven did not have an explanation why his detectives did not mention the significance or lack of it of the broken tape in the conclusion of their report, or provide a theory for why it was there. He adamantly said that their assignment was not to determine if some county officials had violated administrative rules by going into offices. Rather, he said, “We were there to conduct a criminal investigation, not to investigate whether county administrative rules had been violated.”

The overall conclusion of his department’s investigation, Keeven said, was, “We could not find evidence that anything had been broken into...We had no evidence that we could bring to the state’s attorney for charges. There was no evidence of an illegal entry or any criminal activity.” He said the report was sent to Gibbons, the prosecutor, but no charges have been filed.

The report stated that the investigators spoke with Maher, who showed them the broken tape on the drawers, “and explained that she did not know if anything was missing or even if the drawers were gone through.” In the next paragraph of the report, the officers stated, “There was no forced entry to the Madison County Credit Union and no reported missing items.” Lybarger and Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment.

Cleaning crews were initially ruled out as having any involvement after Maher said she cleaned the offices herself. She said she decided to set the tape after hearing that other offices were being entered after hours. At the time, she told BND reporters that she had only heard rumors and had no proof of illegal entries. Maher could not be reached for comment for this story.

The detectives also interviewed Hulme, their report stated. Hulme told them “he had never been in the credit union,” according to the report.

Video surveillance tapes were reviewed by the detectives, but the report stated none had been trained on the entrance door to the credit union, which has since moved out of the building.

The report concluded, “A review of the video surveillance system showed nothing that appeared out of the ordinary and captured the cleaning crew and maintenance staff working.”

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625, @gapawlaczyk