Charged county board member files motion to replace State’s Attorney

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MONTICELLO, Ill. (WCIA) — For at least the second time in recent months, a Piatt County board member is attempting to bring in an outside lawyer to replace State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades as the board’s source of legal counsel.

Court records show board member Shannon Carroll filed motion in May, arguing for the courts to appoint an outside attorney to replace Rhoades after he was one of five board members charged with violating the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson filed the misdemeanor charges against board chairman Ray Spencer and members Dale Lattz, Renee Fruendt, Shannon Carroll and Bob Murrell on May 15.

“It is my understanding that the (State’s Attorney’s office) is supposed to defend board members against actions like this, but in this case, the SAO decided to charge me, along with four other board members, and not talk to us first, even though the SAO is the board’s counsel,” Carroll wrote in the May 18 filing. “Because of this I ask this court to immediately appoint the Champaign County State’s Attorney to defend the board in this case.”

Carroll added that it wouldn’t be possible for the state’s attorney to both defend and prosecute the board regarding the OMA charges, and if “Champaign County SAO is unable, request Meyer Capel.”

In a response filed Monday, Dobson wrote that the conflict Carroll described in the motion doesn’t exist: “Counsel in the Piatt County State’s Attorney’s office, as part of their constitutional and statutory duties, never defend an individual accused of a crime.”

A special prosecutor for the case has been requested from the Illinois Attorney General because she and Rhoades were “witnesses to the criminal offense alleged in this cause, and therefore would not and could not serve as prosecutors.”

In a previous interview, Rhoades said board members had received written legal guidance via about how to comply with the OMA while holding meetings remotely. Like other such emails over the course of nearly six months, she said, that guidance didn’t garner a response from the board.

“What the Piatt County board has, in the State’s Attorney’s Office, is an objective, efficient and responsive source of legal advice. The fact that board members do not like advice that they are given does not mean that the State’s Attorney’s Office cannot continue to represent the board,” Dobson and Rhoades said in court documents Monday.

Carroll filed the motion to replace Rhoades in May, but it wasn’t until about a week ago that she and Dobson became aware of the filing.

For one thing, court documents say, the email address used initially to serve the original filing was defunct.

And it wasn’t until “on or about June 24” that Monticello attorney Jim Ayers motioned to include Murrell, Spencer, Lattz and Fruendt with Carroll as the plaintiffs in the filing.

Dobson and Rhoades’ response to the Carroll’s filing comes nearly three weeks after Spencer called for both of their resignations.

At the time, Spencer complained that the county’s lawyers had “engaged in numerous investigations resulting in criminal charges against board members, a lawsuit for increased Emergency Management Agency funding and a charge claiming an Open Meetings Act violation by the county board.”

Carroll voiced similar dissatisfaction in his own filing weeks before: “The current SAO has launched numerous investigations of the board in the last 6 months, resulting in felony charges against the board chair, a lawsuit against the entire board for emergency management agency funding, the open meetings act case, and currently has a stalled grand jury investigation against almost every elected county official.”

Rhoades confirmed earlier this month that the Illinois State Police, Federal Bureau of Investigations and a grand jury each have ongoing investigations into the county.

ISP has been investigating potential grant mismanagement for “close to a year,” while a grand jury convened multiple times earlier this year, she said. The FBI is the most recent agency to begin looking into county financial matters, including misappropriation of grant funding.

Rhoades said that given those investigations, she was “contacting the contacting the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to see if that office is in the position to provide legal counsel for the Piatt County Board for the next few months since they do not wish to follow my advice.”

In his filing, Carroll decried the board’s situation.

“Right now, the board has no legal counsel we can freely talk too [sic],” he wrote.

In response, both State’s Attorneys’ noted in court documents that “There is no conflict with the State’s Attorney continuing to represent the board, as the State’s Attorney’s Office is looking to the best interest of the public. If the County Board does so too, there is no conflict.”

Carroll’s May 18 motion isn’t the first time a Piatt County board member has attempted to circumvent the State’s Attorney’s office: Two of the four felony charges Spencer faces come from alleged attempts to hire an outside lawyer to replace Rhoades and provide the board legal advice during budget hearings last year.

The state attorney general has taken over the job of prosecuting Spencer on all four of the felony charges he faces.

Both attempts to hire additional lawyers have come at times when the county budget has been in crisis — something court documents reiterated on Monday.

“It is not an appropriate use of taxpayer resources to allow for another attorney or attorney’s office to represent the Board when the State’s Attorney has a statutory and constitutional duty to represent the Board and is complying with those duties at all times,” Dobson and Rhoades wrote.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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