Madison County Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida says it was a “human error” in his office, not politics, that allowed civil DUI cases to be dropped and driver’s licenses to be reinstated for former U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton and six other people facing DUI charges.
In a heated Madison County Board’s Judiciary Committee meeting Thursday night, Von Nida, a Democrat, said he takes full responsibility for the clerical error, which was made by one of his employees. The error involved not scheduling a hearing with the defendants’ lawyers within a 30-day time limit.
“This was not a political action,” Von Nida said. “It has nothing to do with anything other than human error.”
The special Judiciary Committee meeting was convened after Republican members of the Madison County Board called a news conference Wednesday to express their outrage that Wigginton would be able to keep his driver’s license while he is prosecuted for a DUI charge filed after he was arrested on New Year’s Eve in Edwardsville.
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At the committee meeting, Republicans grilled Von Nida, asking how an error like this could happen with a technologically advanced system, why there were no safeguards to detect problems and why Von Nida wasn’t tracking the high-profile case more closely. They also voiced their suspicions that Von Nida’s office had made the error on purpose as a favor to Wigginton, also a Democrat.
“You can see how it looks like a ‘You scratch my back, I scratch yours’ kind of thing,” committee Chairman Mike Walters, a Republican, told Von Nida. Walters was referencing a 2014 letter from Wigginton to Von Nida in which the then-U.S. attorney Wigginton cleared Von Nida in the case involving Fred Bathon, the former county treasurer convicted of rigging tax sales.
Von Nida categorically denied that politics played a part and promised his office is taking steps to prevent it from happening again, implementing a system where more people will be involved in reviewing DUI cases and scheduling DUI hearings.
“You would have to assume the circuit clerk’s office went out of their way to make mistakes on all of these other cases to cover for a disgraced Democrat,” said Mike Parkinson, a Democratic County Board member.
Three Republicans - Chrissy Dutton, Phil Chapman and James Goggin - voted against a resolution brought up by Parkinson that would have cleared Von Nida’s office of any wrongdoing.
Dutton said the news conference Wednesday was called for her to tell the story of her brother, who was killed by a drunken driver, and bring awareness to the danger of letting DUI offenders get their license’s back.
“I know it was a mistake, we all make mistakes,” she said about the clerical error. “But this is a mistake that could be tragic.”
Dutton said she was disappointed by the way the meeting went Thursday night when it took a turn for the political.
“I went into the night thinking it was going to be productive and a ‘Hey let’s work together’ meeting,” she said. “But it took a whole different tone.”
Deputy Clerk Dina Burch told the Judiciary Committee what happens when a civil DUI case is brought to the circuit clerk’s office and why the circuit clerk’s hands are tied now that the case was accidentally dropped.
“Nothing can be done by the clerk’s office for cases already disposed of,” she said.
“It was a breach of trust and I respect that,” Von Nida said. “I went public not to be political but to tell the truth.”
After an hour long discussion on the issue, the board decided to go into an executive session with Von Nida and the employees from his office who oversee scheduling.
How the mistake happened
“When someone is charged with a DUI, there’s a two-fold track,” Von Nida said in interview before the committee meeting.
The accused person will face criminal charges of driving under the influence, but also faces a civil case regarding their driver’s license, which can be revoked if the Secretary of State’s Office, which has the ultimate authority in license revocation cases, chooses to take those measures.
At the meeting, Burch said that on Feb. 1, Wigginton’s attorney Curtis Dawson requested a hearing on his client’s behalf. Those hearings, however, must be scheduled within 30 days of when the request was made. An employee who handled scheduling in the circuit clerk’s office miscalculated, and scheduled Wigginton’s hearing for March 7, six days after the deadline.
The case was dropped due to a summary statute suspension, which automatically kicks in unless there is a hearing, Von Nida said.
“It’s a low threshold,” Von Nida said in the interview. And after it’s dropped, there’s “a number of hoops that the state has to jump through” to go forward with the civil case.
The criminal charges against Wigginton still remain, Von Nida said. He did not “get off” on the New Year’s Eve DUI, but simply “caught a break,” Von Nida said.
Dawson could not be reached for comment Friday.
Von Nida acknowledged that the mistake shouldn’t have happened and said his office is taking steps to prevent it from happening again, implementing a system where more people will involved checking and scheduling DUI hearings.
Wigginton’s DUI history
Around 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Wigginton’s ex-wife called police to tell them he was intoxicated and had just struck her friend’s car with his silver Jeep, an Edwardsville Police Department report stated. An officer spotted Wigginton’s car in the parking lot of a Sonic restaurant near Plummer and Commerce drives in Edwardsville and pulled him over.
Police video of the incident shows Wigginton almost falling over as officers conduct a field sobriety test.
Wigginton was issued citations for driving under the influence and improper traffic lane usage.
The next court date on the DUI charge is scheduled for 1 p.m. May 2, according to court records.
Wigginton resigned as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois in November 2015.