Felony charges against former EMA director dropped

News

MONTICELLO, Ill. (WCIA)— A prosecutor has dropped multiple felony charges against a former head of Piatt County’s Emergency Management agency after deciding the county’s financial records couldn’t support the case against him. 

James Donaldson was charged in April with felony theft and official misconduct after an investigation by Illinois State Police. 

Donaldson was accused of using his position as EMA director to reroute state grant money to himself: like other Illinois counties, Piatt County was eligible for partial reimbursement by the state for the EMA director salary. 

Donaldson allegedly “reimbursed” himself his own salary, according to court documents, which eventually prompted the county board chair at the time to contact state police after noticing irregularities in the grant funding.

Donaldson’s attorneys, however, said that after he’d accepted the position in 2010, he’d been “provided little to no guidance and this resulted in a misperception that Donaldson had engaged in misconduct while acting as the EMA director.” 

He’d been given “an out-dated procedures manual and no other guidance nor anyone to report to,” attorney Mark Johnson said in a news release. 

Monday’s court filing by the county’s state’s attorneys, however, focused less on Donaldson and instead more on the county financial issues that prevented them from being able to prove their case against him.  

The filing notes that “the State should be able to rely on the financial and accounting records of Piatt County” to track when the EMA salary was reimbursed — among other things.

But, the filing says, the county’s finance department “does not…keep any separate records for grant funds that are for salary reimbursement, meaning there is no way to isolate grant funds received from revenue deposited in the general corporate fund.”

A “lack of evidence for the state’s case-in-chief to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the grant monies from the State of Illinois were recorded, processed and used to reimburse the EMA director’s salary supports a dismissal of this criminal case at this time,” the filing read. 

The dismissal of the criminal case — along with the notations regarding the county’s financial record-keeping — comes at a time when the county has come under scrutiny for its handling of a deficit budget. 

Last week, the county approved a budget more than $370,000 in the red — and approved a tax levy of 9.4 percent to alleviate retirement contribution shortages within the county — despite taxpayer protests that spanned multiple meetings

And while that $370,000-plus figure is significantly lower than original deficit projections, it also represents significant cuts to the county’s public safety departments. 

In October, the board asked all departments to cut 9 percent from their individual budgets, with some cutting the full 9 percent and others falling short.

Ultimately, public safety departments took a larger hit than others — among them Donaldson’s former department, the EMA. 

After his departure earlier last year, the department was switched from being its own entity to one under the supervision of the Sheriff’s office. 

Eventually, following the appointment of current EMA director Mike Holmes in May, the position was switched from part to full-time in order to “modernize” and “professionalize” the department.  

While work on a number of projects has already been completed, there’s still more left in order to align the county with state standards: The procedures manual — or formally, the county’s Emergency Operations Manual — cited by Donaldson’s attorneys as being out-of-date when he started in 2010 still requires updating before a 2020 state deadline: in March, the state will determine whether or not the county is compliant with its EMA standards. 

In that process, the state will determine whether the county remains eligible for Illinois Emergency Management Agency Grants, which essentially means the state will determine whether the department is functional and fully-funded.

As of last week, the department was financially reduced to a half-time operations budget after the county’s overall budget was approved by the board.

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