Metro-East News

County employee quits after using workplace fax to file political reports for sheriff

Sheriff Rick Watson
Sheriff Rick Watson

A St. Clair County Clerk’s Office employee, who also serves as the treasurer for Sheriff Rick Watson’s re-election campaign, has resigned for using a taxpayer-funded fax machine in the clerk’s office to file political paperwork.

Margaret Eros, a deputy clerk in the county department that handles elections, resigned on Tuesday, said County Clerk Tom Holbrook.

“It was brought to my attention that a St. Clair County Clerk employee was using county equipment to send campaign committee reports to the Illinois State Board of Elections,” Holbrook, a Democrat, said in a prepared statement. “This investigation has no connection in any way to the county’s elections or voting system. This was an error in judgment on the employee’s part. The employee has reimbursed the county for the estimated costs and resigned effective immediately.”

Eros did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Holbrook said 14 faxes were sent to the State Board of Elections. Eros reimbursed the county approximately $34 -- an amount that Holbrook said was based on the cost of sending faxes from an retail outlet, such as OfficeMax.

“Using county property for political purposes won’t be tolerated,” Holbrook said.

Eros was a 26-year employee “who worked long hours, especially during elections,” Holbrook said.

In 2017, she earned $39,625 from the county.

Eros faxed various forms to the state elections board, such as ones that are required for the formation of a political committee.

The faxes were sent during Eros’ breaks, Holbrook said.

According to Holbrook, between 2011 and 2017, Eros faxed reports for several local campaign committees, including the Citizens for Rick Watson, the Democratic sheriff; Committee to Elect Skip Kernan, the former St. Clair Township highway commissioner; Friends of Robert Allen Jr., a Democratic County Board member; Committee to elect Michael Crockett Jr., a Democratic member of the Board of Review; and the Better Belleville Good Government Party.

State records also indicate Eros has, since 2011, used a computer to electronically file 221 financial reports to the State Board of Elections.

According to a review of the electronic filings available through the State Board of Elections, Eros filed financial reports for various political committees on 64 occasions between Mondays and Fridays between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., when the clerk’s office is open. The online records don’t indicate if documents were filed from a county computer or a personal computer.

Holbrook said Eros resigned before he had the opportunity to ask her if the electronic filings were done using county equipment.

Eros is currently listed as the treasurer of Citizens for Rick Watson, the political campaign for Sheriff Rick Watson, a Democrat.

State election board documents show that three Statement of Organization forms for Watson’s campaign were sent from the county clerk’s office’s fax number to the State Board of Elections. Two of the forms were signed by Eros. One was signed by Watson.

Watson said in an interview he will probably appoint a new treasurer of his committee. He added Eros can work for his campaign as a volunteer if she wants to, but a conversation still needs to take place.

It’s the third time that the workings of Watson’s campaign committee have been called into question.

St. Clair County Republicans previously complained that Watson included two sheriff’s department phone numbers on a campaign letter seeking contributions. Watson said it was an oversight which would be corrected.

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Letterhead used in St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department official correspondence (above), and the letterhead used in Sheriff Rick Watson’s mailer seeking campaign contributions.

“I was relying on (other people) probably too much. I figure they knew what the rules were when I didn’t. Believe me, I am going through a quick lesson,” Watson said. “I’ve got people printing off election law, and everything I do, I question it because I want to make sure I do the right thing.”

There also have been questions about the proceeds from Watson’s annual golf fundraiser for his campaign. In recent years, he has told supporters, in promotional material, that some of the money raised would go toward the county’s DARE programs. However, no money was listed in his campaign account as being donated to DARE, according to state board of elections records.

Watson said some proceeds went to DARE, but the bookkeeping was not done correctly. Watson said meticulous records are kept detailing deposits and expenditures out of the charities account, including photocopies of checks, receipts, cash donated to the fund, and deposit slips.

Records provided by Watson, and reviewed by the News-Democrat, show checks written to “Citizens for Rick Watson,” but deposited directly into the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Charities account, an account within the sheriff’s department for donations from the community and staff. Money from the account is intended to be used for DARE T-shirts, DARE workbooks, coffee mugs for teachers, stickers for children, lollipops to hand out, or even donations to area charities or nonprofits, such as the Illinois Center for Autism, Project Compassion, or even high school marching bands in the area.

In September of last year, nearly $1,900 in checks written to “Citizens for Rick Watson” were deposited directly to St. Clair County Sheriff’s Charities fund, instead of to the sheriff’s campaign account.

Watson said it was a mistake, and the money should have been placed into his campaign account, with a subsequent check written from the campaign fund to the charities account, in order for a record of the contribution to exist in State Board of Elections records.

He said the correct practice would take place in the future.

“I’ll make the necessary adjustments and move forward,” Watson said.

Watson said the department is trying to serve the public with the resources it has.

“We’re not trying to do anything underhanded,” Watson said.

Kent Redfield, a longtime political observer in Illinois, said the donation matters appears to be a violation of campaign finance reporting, but not a major violation.

Redfield said checks written out to campaigns fall under the campaign finance disclosure laws.

“You have to show receipts and expenditures,” Redfield said. “If it is money that comes into the campaign fund, you have to record it as a receipt, and then if you spend it, you have to record it — you have to have an expenditure. Anything over $150 is supposed to be itemized on both sides of the ledger — the money comes in, the money goes out.”

He said if Watson self-reports the issue to the State Board of Elections, and says what is being done to correct the issue, a fine most likely would not be assessed, but a letter would be kept on file to note the communications.

“They’re much more interested in getting people to comply with the law,” Redfield said.

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St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly. Derik Holtmann News-Democrat

Brendan Kelly, the St. Clair County state’s attorney, says his office has provided legal guidance to Watson, including what he and his employees are not allowed to do while in the office.

“We have to provide legal counsel for county office holders when they ask for legal opinions,” Kelly said. “He wants to make sure that things are clear to his staff and make sure he’s doing the right thing at all times.”

The state code and county ordinances usually say what people can’t do, Kelly said.

Kelly said he was contacted by Watson when the concerns were brought to his attention in regard to the sheriff’s office’s phone number being listed on the campaign letter.

“He wanted to make sure he was obeying the law and wanted to avoid any of the concerns that are being raised,” Kelly said.

Kelly said his advice was not political. Kelly said any questions raised by Watson’s political campaign would need to be answered by a private attorney.

“We don’t advise candidates,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the issue involving the employee in the clerk’s office also was brought to his attention.

“The appropriate course of action is to turn that information over to the public integrity unit, let them investigate it and let the process move forward in whichever way is appropriate, depending on what evidence they find,” Kelly said. “It’s a serious thing to violate that kind of county public policy, that county personnel code.”