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Jon White
Claims have been dismissed against the Unit 5 school district and several former and current administrators in a federal lawsuit involving former teacher Jon White, seen above in February 2008, but the attorney for the victims plans to move forward with appeals. (Pantagraph file photo/David Proeber)

Robert Nuckolls’ recent guilty plea to stalking a former girlfriend closed the door on more than his criminal case. The felony conviction also ended his membership on the McLean County Board.

The board also has been distracted by the recent problems of another member whose traffic record made headlines when he was cited a fourth time for driving on a suspended license. Ben Owens publicly apologized for the embarrassment his situation caused.

Owens said Friday he is resigning next month as the board’s vice chairman. The move comes in the wake of pressure from Republican Party leaders and a poll of board members who favor Owens stepping down from the leadership role.

In Bloomington, the City Council is seeking further legal advice before deciding whether Alderwoman Judy Stearns should be sworn in because of questions about whether she owed the city money at the time she filed to run for a second term. Stearns continues to serve under her 2007 oath.

The three are the most high profile examples of numerous Central Illinois public servants, including police officers, teachers and other elected officials, whose actions can be perceived, to varying degrees, as violations of the public trust. 

A lot is said and written about the public’s cynicism and, often, disdain toward elected representatives. Polls are consistent in showing that confidence in government slips with every report of another ethics violation, governor’s trial or public employee’s guilty plea to a criminal act.

“When these things happen it’s absolutely a distraction for the other board members. As a board member, you don’t want the good work being done by the McLean County Board overshadowed by what Bob Nuckolls did last weekend,” said McLean County Board chairman Matt Sorenson.

Public confidence

The public holds the highest level of trust in those it elects and hires to do the people’s business, according to results of a poll conducted earlier this year by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. The survey of voters in 18 southern Illinois counties showed a stronger mistrust for government compared with 30 years ago, but the work of local officials was still viewed as “mostly beneficial.”

“We know these people. Any time an elected official is hauled up before the public, it reinforces people’s existing attitude that government is bad,” said Charles Leonard, a professor with the SIU center.

Most elected officials and others held to a higher standard of conduct perform their jobs admirably, but when a community sees a series of missteps, confidence crumbles, added David Yepsen, director of the SIU institute.

“It becomes like water torture,” he said.

It’s difficult because of what people expect, noted Kent Redfield, a longtime political science professor and political observer at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

“People don’t expect local government to fix the economy, stop climate change, lower gas prices, or get us out of Iraq. So their expectations are lower and their comfort level is higher. That being said, when you have corruption and scandal at the local level it can be even more corrosive to public confidence and support for government and public officials than corruption at the top,” said Redfield.

The consequences of breaching the public trust can vary. When the rule that’s broken is a law, it can lead to criminal charges and removal from the job — as in the Nuckolls case. Conduct not directly tied to a public employee’s job, while embarrassing, may not lead to immediate termination.

Either way, the black eye left can take a long time to heal, say officials.

Fractured trust

When former Bloomington police officer Jeff Pelo was sentenced in 2008 to more than 300 years in prison for serial rape and stalking, the judge included the public among Pelo’s many victims because of his breach of the public trust. Bloomington Police Chief Randy McKinley thinks the officers who investigated the accusations and worked with Pelo suffered, too.

“We wanted to handle the Pelo case because it was one of our own. Our police officers won’t stand for a dirty cop,” said McKinley, whose department also handled cases involving theft charges against veteran officer Tommy Lee Walters and an internal investigation of policy violations against Mark Blain, who retired before he was disciplined.

McKinley said all officers starting their first day on the job hear the same speech. “I tell them there are two things you can do to ruin your career: Be dishonest and lie. If you lie there’s nothing I can do for you. You will be fired.”

In cases that involve a violation of policy or procedures, officers can face sanctions that allow them to stay on the job. Being open and honest about mistakes helps rebuild public confidence, said McKinley.

Teacher’s abuse

Whether a mistake is intentional or not, the first step in restoring public trust is honest communication, said state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.

“When the act is intentional, it damages public trust and confidence. You have to be up front with the public and admit it’s your fault. The public tolerates mistakes but not something that’s intentional,” said Brady.

Redfield agreed.

“You want people to believe that no one is above the law and that those in positions of public trust are held to a higher standard because of the positions they hold. People do not expect everyone to be perfect, but they do expect transparency, fairness and justice in response to corruption or scandal,” he said. 

In the Unit 5 school district, officials apologized to the grade school girls molested by former grade school teacher Jon White, who is serving 60 years for sexually abusing two Unit 5 students and eight others in Urbana. But in settlement agreements reached with four Unit 5 students and nine in Urbana, neither district admitted any wrongdoing.

A recent appellate court ruling reinstating a lawsuit filed by two Urbana students against Unit 5 could still hold the Normal-based district accountable for “passing” White to Urbana with the knowledge he had sexually abused students. Unit 5 has denied it deliberately withheld damaging information about White from the Urbana district.

Making amends

Despite the negative publicity transgressions bring, there’s evidence the public is willing to overlook mistakes when they go to the polls.

Nuckolls faced no opposition in his 2008 re-election bid even after admitting he violated orders of protection involving an ISU co-worker and her daughter, a county employee.

Stearns recently won a close race over challenger Carol Koos after it was disclosed Stearns and her husband had four homestead exemptions for their properties when only one is allowed, and that the couple was late in paying taxes on many of the rental properties they own in the Twin Cities.

Stearns has since paid nearly $1,500 to cover underpaid taxes to the city in an effort to keep her council seat, but council members are awaiting outside legal counsel before deciding if she should be sworn in for a second four-year term.

So far, Stearns has not offered a public apology. During a hearing before the City Council, her Bloomington lawyer, Mercer Turner, said, “For every wrong there is a remedy, but in this case there is no remedy because there is no wrong.”

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