Von Nida addresses the Judiciary Committee
Did former U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton receive intentionally favorable treatment in the handling of his Madison County DUI case, or, is an admitted clerical error that allows him to retain his driving privileges being unfairly politicized?
Sides were drawn along those lines during a special meeting of Madison County's Judiciary Committee Thursday, as Republicans who hold the majority sought specifics about the Circuit Clerk's scheduling mistake that negated the suspension of Wigginton's driver's license
Wigginton was arrested on New Year's Eve in Edwardsville for DUI, his second one in Madison County in less than two years. When a hearing was not scheduled on his petition to rescind statutory suspension within 30 days as required by law, a judge granted the petition.
Before and during the hearing, Circuit Clerk Mark von Nida said he would take responsibility for the error made by one of his clerks.
“I am humiliated,” von Nida said. “I made a mistake. I didn’t take proper actions to put the right person in the right place and from that, there were repercussions on a number of cases. I take responsibility to the extent that I am fixing it.”
Publicity of the clerical error itself was hotly debated Thursday.
Wigginton's situation was first publicized in an Alton newspaper about a week ago, which von Nida said came about by him tipping off that paper, and others. A few days after the story made the news, Republican Board members called a press conference that drew attention to the perception that Wigginton's standing drew him favorable treatment, and to focus on public safety.
Board member Michael Parkinson, Democrat from Granite City, said he's worked in law enforcement for more than 20 years. He called the press conference "partisan" and done to smear the Circuit Clerk's office.
"No proper investigation ever starts with a press conference folks,” Parkinson said to a round of applause from the clerks in the audience.
Committee chair Mike Walters, Republican from Godfrey, addressed Parkinson’s remark but could not be heard over the audience.
“I sat and listened to him talk,” Parkinson said referring to questions from another Board member. “Please don’t interrupt me and let me finish.”
“I am the chairman, and you will calm down,” Walters said.
“OK so now we’re back to partisan politics,” Parkinson said.
“If you cannot be calm, I’m going to move on. Calm down, sir,” Walters said.
“I’m being calm,” Parkinson said. “You’re interrupting me again.”
“No, I’m asking you to calm down,” Walters responded.
“May I continue?” Parkinson asked.
“As long as you’re calm, go ahead,” Walters responded.
“I’m perfectly calm,” Parkinson said. “I’m always calm and collected.”
“OK, Mr. Parkinson this is my second time,” Walters said. “If I have to inform you one more time that you are out of order, then I’m going to move on to the next person.”
“So, I will reiterate what I was saying," Parkinson said. "No proper investigation looking for the truth ever starts with a press conference. The investigation is done in private, the facts are found, and then they’re presented to the public in a proper manner. That’s the way it’s supposed to be done."
Board member Chrissy Dutton, Republican from Bethalto who spoke at last week's press conference about how drunk driving had affected her family when her brother's life was taken, said there was no political motive for the press conference.
"I don’t know why as a county board member I’m not allowed to go to the public and tell a story that I wanted to bring awareness to," Dutton said.
“I get all of you have been in politics a lot longer than me. I don’t play these political games. I hear these stories about this guy and he did this back … I wasn’t around for any of that. I don’t know Mr. Wigginton. I don’t know who his friends are, nor do I care.
“The only reason why his name was brought up was because that was the only one that was in the public. Because you brought him up, you brought him up in the media. That’s the only one I knew about.
"I know it’s an error, I know it’s a mistake. I didn’t accuse anyone of anything yesterday. I didn’t shame an employee. I didn’t point my finger and say you did this on purpose.
“I went to the media because I felt like I had a platform. I felt like I needed to say my story to put a face to what families go through. I’m not saying anybody did this on purpose. I’m just saying I want people to know what happens when repeat offenders get out and it’s possible,” Dutton said.
Clerks in the audience could be heard saying, “You don’t think we know?”
Von Nida spoke up by questioning who called the press conference and how they reached out to reporters.
Dutton responded by asking why von Nida called reporters after he learned about the mistake in his office.
“… the whole extravaganza, your story notwithstanding, lacked any Democrats being invited (to the press conference)," von Nida said. "I wasn’t invited. You mentioned me in particular. And so to that effect, it looks very political when you don’t invite Democrats. It looks very political when you don’t invite the person that you’re talking about."
Walters asked von Nida what he did when he learned of the clerical error.
Von Nida clarified that he didn’t find the error himself, as he was not following Wigginton’s case. He said he was told about the error and decided to go public with the mistake.
“Did you contact anybody on this Board?” Walters asked.
“I did not contact anybody on the Board,” von Nida said.
“So the chairman of your committee finds out from …” Walters said.
“Let me correct you on that,” von Nida said. “You are not my committee. I am a constitutional officer elected by the people. I report to the…”
As they talked over each other, Walters asked von Nida which newspapers he reached out to.
Von Nida said he contacted the Telegraph, the Belleville News Democrat and the Madison County Record.
No employee with the Record was contacted by von Nida by phone or email. Von Nida spoke with the Record on Monday when he was called for information on the error. He said after Thursday's hearing that he believes he had the incorrect contact information for the Record.
Walters asked if von Nida got a hold of all three newspapers. He responded that he did not.
“So you decided to go to the media, tell them what was going on," Walters said. "And so we had a press conference because I think everybody should hear this story from Ms. Dutton that she gave yesterday. It was very heartfelt and it was very tough for her to sit through and tell everybody what had happened.
“So when I hear people talking, we’re being partisan - this is being partisan - I have to sit back and go, ‘hmm if they go to the media, it’s not partisan, if we go to the media, it’s partisan.’ I didn’t think what you did was partisan, and what we did was not partisan."
Von Nida responded by saying he contacted the Telegraph “because what I did was I was forthright and I told the public about a mistake in my office that I was taking responsibility for. I wasn’t trying to hide it. I wasn’t waiting for somebody to find it later on and then act like I was covering it up. I went public with it.”
He added that he found out about the press conference when a News Channel 5 reporter asked if he was available to respond.
After some back and forth, Walters asked von Nida if he ever had much correspondence or interaction with Wigginton.
“Um, I have talked to him before,” von Nida said. “He was the counsel for the electoral board at a hearing years back.”
"Did you ever correspond …" Walters asked.
“Of course, he was the U.S. Attorney," von Nida said. "So I might have talked to him a few times as U.S. Attorney."
“Did you have any other types of correspondence from him?” Walters asked.
“Um, no I have not had any correspondence with him,” von Nida responded.
“So on April 29 in the Alton Telegraph, ‘you noted that von Nida had previously, that he was involved in the solution to the problem that the U.S. Attorney … Southern District Steve Wigginton sent him a letter exonerating him?’ Did you get that letter sir?” Walters asked.
The letter Walters referred to involved criminal proceedings related to former Madison County Treasurer Fred Bathon, who was charged with rigging bids at tax sales in 2007 and 2008.
Von Nida responded that he did get the letter Walters referenced.
“Is that correspondence?” Walters asked.
“Yes,” von Nida responded.
“OK, so you got a letter from Steve Wigginton …” Walters said.
“I thought you were asking whether I had correspondence from him regarding the DUI,” von Nida said.
“So, when, from this right here, you were exonerated … were you the only one who ended up with a letter exonerating?” Walters asked.
“I have no idea,” von Nida said.
“OK, so this is in 2014 and now we’re in 2019 and, you know, you said it was human error," Walters said. "What would you say to people that have honestly said this guy exonerated you in ’14 and now in ’19 something happens in the office and miraculously this paperwork isn’t filed. I’m not saying that you did anything, I’m just saying …
“You are actually accusing me of something that is illegal,” von Nida said.
“No I just said what would you believe, I said what would you say if people said that? That was my question,” Walters said.
“That’s a ridiculous question,” von Nida said, calling it outrageous.
“It’s not outrageous,” Walters said. “Not in politics, it’s not outrageous.”
Walters turned to Board members for further questions when von Nida responded, “It’s not that I don’t want to answer.”
“What you’re suggesting, or what the person who would be accusing me of it would be suggesting is that the U.S. Attorney’s office who prosecuted a Democrat and threw him in jail, and again what the correspondence says is I’m not a target of the investigation and I was a witness. I helped in the situation. But, you’re suggesting that they sent that letter...on the off chance that the U.S. Attorney five years later would get a DUI so that I could give him a break. Quite frankly, that’s ridiculous.”
“No it’s not Mr. Von Nida,” Walters said. “Some people call it, ‘You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch your back.”
Some Board members in attendance addressed concerns that the incident reflected poorly on the entire county.
Board member Tom McRae, Republican from Bethalto, called Wigginton "very powerful, politically connected," and he "gets off again."
"The powerful, the politically connected and the rich get off once again," McRae said. "That’s what people say, Mark. Those are the phone calls we all receive."
Von Nida responded that reaching out to him after receiving those phone calls would have been better than calling a press conference. He added that Wigginton’s criminal charges are still pending, and he will face consequences for those charges in criminal court.
McRae said he is sure the criminal case will occur at some point.
“I’m sure it will be delayed and delayed and delayed for other technicalities,” he said.
Board member Erica Conway-Harriss, Republican from Glen Carbon, said the situation draws unneeded, negative attention.
“It is not a hidden fact that this county has been a pay-to-play county,” she said. “That’s public knowledge, and I know that none of us in this room want that for our area and we would fight against that.
“So, when we as County Board members read that a mistake was made by the county that is allowing a former U.S. prosecutor to drive after a second DUI charge. That’s outrageous. And as someone who is supposed to be overseeing the county, that is something that we should all take very seriously.
“And I appreciate the fact that you are also appalled by it. I do. I am baffled that you called the newspaper instead of coming to the county board about it.”
Von Nida said him going to a reporter with the information was not political.
“I knew I was going to take my lumps," he said. "But I decided that it was better to tell the truth and tell the people what happened than to hide it and wait for somebody to discover it. I didn’t do a press conference. I made a few phone calls to people that I know, knowing that once one story was out that I would have to answer more questions."
Harriss added that Wigginton made the situation political “when he’s told police officers, “Do you know who I am?”
There was no response.
Following executive session, the committee meeting resumed briefly to conclude. During that time, Parkinson made a motion “that we state publicly that through the evidence that’s been presented here tonight that indicates that this is nothing more than human error and there was nothing nefarious about this.”
Board members Phil Chapman, Republican from Highland, and Dutton voted against the motion. Harriss objected to the motion.