Chief Public Defender John Rekowski said that a former employee who worked as an attorney without a law license said she was at a funeral when she was actually attempting to retake the bar exam in Chicago.
During a Judiciary Committee meeting Friday, Rekowski said that former employee Kelcie M. Miller, 26, told him she would be out of the state in February for a relative’s funeral. However, his office learned after she was fired for impersonating an attorney that the time she was supposedly at the funeral corresponded with the retake bar exam in Chicago.
Then a diary was found while cleaning out Miller’s desk, which verified that she was in Chicago that week.
“We were deceived, but it is what it is,” he said.
Miller was hired in October and fired in May after it was discovered that she had lied about passing the bar exam and did not have a law license.
Rekowski explained that his office was in the process of hiring an attorney last year when Miller applied and was interviewed. He said Miller had graduated law school. Then when the bar results came out, Rekowski said he was going to offer her a job and asked if she passed the exam. She said that she had passed and they “could put her on board.”
Rekowski’s office learned that she had lied about her credentials when a court reporter searched for Miller’s license on the state’s Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission website in an attempt to find the correct spelling of her name.
Rekowski previously said that when he confronted Miller about not being licensed, she continued to maintain that she was an attorney. However, Miller failed the bar exam both times she took it.
Rekowski said that had she passed the test in Chicago, her deception likely would never have been caught.
“It does have on the website [an attorney’s] admission date to the bar, but I couldn’t tell you my admission date to the bar,” he said. “I mean, you know, you don’t go in there looking at that kind of stuff. You get a name or an address, whatever.”
Miller has since been charged with false impersonation of an attorney, theft of more than $10,000 but less than $100,000 from a government entity and forgery. Rekowski explained that the theft charge is for accepting a $57,000 annual salary as an attorney when she didn’t actually have a license, and the forgery charge is for a fake bar card that she showed him on her phone.
Miller was taken into custody at the Madison County jail, and Circuit Judge Richard Tognarelli set her bail at $100,000.
“Anyway, it happened,” he said. “Not one of my happier moments in life.”
Rekowski said that he is now in the process of filling Miller’s vacancy.
“We are in the process of hiring. If any of you want to send me an application, we don’t require law licenses,” he joked at the committee meeting.
Rekowski said that his office has already interviewed two people for the position.
“The publicity, if nothing else, got me some resumes,” he said.
“We’re trying to get that vacancy filled as fast as we can,” he added.
Committee member Chrissy Dutton asked Rekowski to explain his office’s hiring process and whether proof of a law license was required.
Rekowski said that it is uncommon for attorneys to be asked to show their bar cards. He said he has kept his bar card in his wallet since he was admitted and has only ever taken it out to show security personnel at the courthouse. He added that he did not have to show it to the public defender when he was first hired.
Rekowski said he recognizes the mistake and has requested a certificate of good standing from the ARDC for every attorney in his office to have in their personnel files.
“I have no excuse for what happened,” he said.
He added that when he contacted State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons to inform him of the issue, Gibbons mentioned that he was going to instruct all of the division chiefs to check the attorney status of everyone in his office.
Committee chair Mike Walters pointed out that the public is upset that whoever does the hiring in Rekowski’s office never checked to verify Miller's license.
“To the public, that’s what they’re upset about. How can you never check?” he said. “But it sounds like you’ve corrected that, and we’re going to move forward with it.”
“We can sit here and jump up and down and scream and yell, but you know what happened and we want to get it corrected. We want to move forward. Let’s hope this never happens again. I don’t think it will,” he added.
“Well it won’t happen in my office,” Rekowski responded.
During the meeting, Rekowski also addressed concerns that the cases handled by Miller would be dismissed.
“No, it doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Walters asked Rekowski if it was possible for the criminal defendants to get worse deals.
Rekowski said the defendants have two options. They can either reaffirm the deal they already made or they can “set it back to day one,” which Rekowski described as a “do-over.”
If they choose to start their case over from the beginning, they could get a better outcome, or they could get a worse one.
“They either get the deal they got, or they get to start over again,” he said. “But it just doesn’t go away.”
During Miller's employment, Rekowski previously said she worked on 80 cases. A random sample of eight of those cases included two felony charges of domestic battery, four of aggravated battery, and one of aggravated domestic battery.
In the only case that didn’t involve physical contact between persons, the defendant allegedly broke a pillar on a police car.
Rekowski said during the committee meeting seven of Miller's clients are currently in jail and will all be brought in Wednesday morning to talk with public defenders about their options.
Rekowski said that all 80 defendants have been notified, and his office had fielded eight calls in response to those notifications as of Friday morning.
Dutton asked if the process would cost the county.
Rekowski said that it won’t require any money from his budget, but it will take time for everyone to be contacted, for the cases to go to court and to reaffirm pleas.
“Time is money, so yes it does to that extent,” he said.