Kristin Egbert was fired for secretly removing a political speech from the desk of her boss, Monroe County Assessor Carl Wuertz.
But in a two-page report, a five-member state appeals board issued a finding more than a year ago that Egbert, formerly a deputy assessor, should have been “rewarded” not fired because she was acting on behalf of her true bosses, “the citizens of the county,” by exposing improper and possibly illegal politicking on public time.
Egbert, 36, was awarded a $93,000 settlement in December as the result of a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in federal court in East St. Louis. But in December 2014, about six months after she was dismissed by Wuertz, who had secretly videotaped her removing the speech and then returning it to his desk, the Board of Review for the Illinois Department of Employment Security wrote, “She was acting as a watchdog for the citizens of the county and should have been rewarded for her conduct.”
County officials did not participate in the telephonic hearing that led to the restoration of Egbert’s unemployment benefits. The written findings stated that the county’s employee ethics handbook required that Egbert expose wrongdoing by any county official or employee.
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“The claimant (Egbert) was not violating any reasonable rule or policy, but, in fact, was complying with the requirement in the employee handbook that she report any observed illegality or political malfeasance. Additionally, the Illinois General Assembly has ruled that engaging in prohibited political activities while on (public) time is illegal,” the review board’s ruling stated.
“Government insiders who discover and attempt to remedy inappropriate behavior do an important public service, as the Board of Review’s comment indicated. We don’t want a culture of neighbors spying on neighbors, or course, but when someone with specific insider knowledge steps forward, all taxpayers benefit,” said Carol Portman, president of The Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, a 70-year-old non-profit based in Springfield.
Government insiders who discover and attempt to remedy inappropriate behavior do an important public service, as the Board of Review’s comment indicated.
Carol Portman, president of The Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois
The participants in the lawsuit, including Egbert and Wuertz, are barred by the lawsuit settlement agreement from commenting publicly about the matter. However, Egbert stated in legal documents that she brought the copy of the speech to the attention of then-Sheriff Dan Kelley and tried unsuccessfully to talk with State’s Attorney Kris Reitz. Reitz has declined to comment. Kelley has retired and could not be reached for comment.
In legal papers, Wuertz contended that the speech was merely a “fake,” and was used to test Egbert, whom he suspected of going through items on his desk when he was out of the office. Egbert’s attorneys argued that Wuertz was trying to find a reason to fire Egbert because she had earlier questioned other alleged political activities the assessor had done on public time; namely passing out “coozies,” or drink coolers, containing his name as a Republican candidate for re-election.
Terry Liefer, the chairman of the three-member Monroe County Board, said he had been unaware of the Board of Review’s ruling, and asked a News-Democrat reporter to provide him with a copy. After reading it, Liefer said, “We had some discussion as far as what happened and we requested that they refrain from doing anything like that ... Unfortunately, he (Wuertz) is an elected official, that’s the tough thing about it. We cannot tell an elected official what to do because they are an elected official just like we are.”
Liefer added, “We do not promote political campaigning in the courthouse nor on any county property.”
While Illinois law allows Reitz, the prosecutor, to bring in an outside prosecutor at no cost to the county, the matter was instead discussed by his office and then sheriff Kelley who made a decision not to launch a criminal investigation, according to current Monroe County Sheriff Neal Rohlfing.
Rohlfing, who took office in December 2014, said, “I know the prior sheriff Kelley sat down with the current state’s attorney and they reviewed everything and there was some talk, you know, when the (state) review board made these findings. But it’s one thing to open an investigation and it’s another thing to open an investigation when the prior sheriff and state’s attorney have already looked at it.”
While Rohlfing acknowledged that he could on his own launch an investigation, he said that is unlikely.
“If they decided they didn’t find any criminal activity or anything that they wished to seek charges on especially the state’s attorney ... It’s one of those things,” Rohlfing said. “They looked at it and he claimed she was going through his desk improperly and sheriff Kelley stated, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, in so many words that it was a fake speech. The problem is, how do you prove that wasn’t true?”
According to the state Board of Review’s report, “...Monroe County local law prohibited the performance of campaign activities on public property by elected officials while they are at work. The Monroe County Handbook references such a policy. It further indicates that all employees of the county have a commitment to the citizens of Monroe County to report wrongdoing or political malfeasance as it is a waste of county resources and tax dollars. (Egbert) was not only following the policy when she copied the speech, she was representing the citizens of the county in reporting the malfeasance.”