By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
ROCKFORD — When Winnebago County Coroner Bill Hintz was charged with stealing from the dead, his second round of theft charges in less than a year, County Board Chairman Joe Chiarelli made an unprecedented move to keep the coroner from continuing to work.
He locked Hintz out, deactivating his building access cards and shutting off his county email.
The embattled coroner has ignored calls for his resignation since he was initially charged with theft, forgery and official misconduct last October. Then, after winning reelection in an uncontested November race, six more counts of theft and official misconduct were handed down by the Illinois Attorney General on Sept. 2.
Hintz again stayed on the job, even after the County Board called on him to take paid leave or resign.
Now, state lawmakers including Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, and a host of county officials are searching for a means to relieve an elected official from his or her duties if they face significant criminal charges.
There’s no clear legal avenue to do so, State’s Attorney J. Hanley says. Syverson said he’s working alongside other local lawmakers on legislation that could change that.
‘A gap in the law’
Any such legislation has potential pitfalls, and protections would need to be built in to prevent the power from being weaponized for political purposes, Syverson said. The goal of any legislation would be to allow for an elected office holder to be relieved of their duties, although not removed from office, while waiting for the results of a trial.
“What we don’t want to happen is this to ever become a situation where it becomes political,” Syverson said. “Where you could have someone removing somebody because they’re a political enemy.”
State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Loves Park, said any legislation is still “very much in the research mode.”
“I’m not sure there is a legislative fix to this situation,” Stadelman said. “We just started process of looking into state statute, the constitution and what could be done.”
Illinois election law (10 ILCS 5/25-2) provides eight reasons an elected official can be removed from office. One reason is “conviction of an infamous crime,” but there is nothing that addresses someone facing charges pretrial.
“I think most people acknowledge that this is a gap in the law,” Hanley said, acknowledging concerns about new legislation being used for political reasons.
‘Rules of engagement’
County Board member Jim Webster said the board, collectively, should have more power to act on behalf of taxpayers. However, he said any law would have to clearly define what criminal charges would qualify someone from being removed from their duties to prevent the rule from being abused for political purposes.
“We would have to set the rules of engagement,” Webster said. “How far does a person go before they fall into that eligibility to be booted out of office?”
County Board member Aaron Booker said residents questioned him and other County Board members about why they had not removed Hintz from office. He tried to explain they didn’t have the authority.
“It’s like trying to fight with one hand tied behind our back,” Booker said.
He said the county has been weighing its options on Hintz since the coroner was charged with two counts of theft, 12 counts of forgery and 23 counts of official misconduct last year.
“We were in active discussion after the first set of charges about how to proceed with that office,” Booker said. “It wasn’t that we weren’t acting … we were figuring out where our boundaries lie.”
Chiarelli eventually made the move to lock Hintz out on Sept. 10, a day after the board’s latest resolution calling on Hintz to step aside.
“To Joe Chiarelli’s credit, I think he handled it like a real statesman,” Syverson said. “He chose to take action and had to do what he felt was the right thing, even though there wasn’t necessarily — that we could find — a rule in place to allow that.”
“He went and talked to the state’s attorney. He talked to other experts and then made the decision that he thought was best to protect families that are interacting with the department and taxpayers,” Syverson said.
Hintz faces up to 15 years in prison if he’s convicted of the charges. His next court date is set for Sept. 22.