Rauner appointee to Illinois board accused of racial slurs, ethics violations

John Clough

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

Illinois Prisoner Review Board member John Clough, top left, at an en banc hearing in June.

UPDATE (12/20/17, 1:o5 pm): This story has been updated to include a response from the Governor’s Office. 

Two years before Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Coles County Sheriff’s Deputy John W. Clough to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, Clough was overheard using a derogatory slur toward African Americans “not once, but twice,” according to Sheriff’s office personnel files.

When he was appointed, Clough filed a financial disclosure statement that erroneously failed to list his position as deputy sheriff in responding to a question that asked filers to “list the name of any unit of government” that employed him the previous calendar year.

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And since taking office, Clough’s questionable behavior has continued. Earlier this month, he appeared to deliver petitions to run as a Republican committeeman in Coles County while his agency-issued vehicle was parked outside — despite state law prohibiting using state resources for political purposes.

Clough’s actions were brought to Injustice Watch by the Edgar County Watchdogs, a citizen group that examined Clough’s conduct by studying public documents and state Freedom of Information Act requests. John Kraft, one of the citizen researchers, said that the “final straw” for the organization was when someone sent a photograph of Clough outside his state vehicle, reportedly when he was delivering his political petitions.

The watchdog group then obtained county security video that showed Clough walking through the courthouse on Dec. 4. That day, he delivered his petitions, according to other records the group obtained.

Clough did not return a telephone message or an email on Tuesday. Rachel Bold, a spokeswoman for Rauner’s office, said “these are serious allegations and we are reviewing them,” in an emailed statement Wednesday.

The Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act explicitly prohibits employees from misusing state property or resources “by engaging in any prohibited political activity for the benefit of any campaign for elective office or any political organization.” Prisoner Review Board rules also state that the vehicles should be used “only during the course of official state business.”

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois, Springfield, said “that seems pretty straightforward that’s a misappropriation [of public funds], that you shouldn’t be using state property or state resources to engage in a private, in this case political, activity.”

Kraft said the Watchdogs have filed a complaint with the inspector general for the executive branch.

The 14-member Prisoner Review Board makes release decisions for a small group of aging inmates who were sentenced before the state legislature largely curtailed the use of parole. This year Injustice Watch studied the board and found an arbitrary and opaque process for evaluating parole requests, with often loose rules. The bulk of the board’s work, however, is in setting the terms of release for inmates in Illinois prisons, and in deciding whether terms of a parolee’s release have been violated.

Despite state law, the board fails to keep its minutes of board meetings available for review; the board has not yet provided Injustice Watch minutes of past board meetings that were requested on Nov. 13. But unofficial records taken by members of the John Howard Association, a prisoners’ advocacy group, show that in his first eight months on the board, Clough voted in favor of paroling only one inmate out of the 55 inmates whose cases the board considered.

More than half of the prison population is black, and so is about 60 percent of the parole population, according to Illinois Department of Corrections statistics from June 2016.

In July, according to the John Howard Association notes, Clough presented the parole case of Lester Aldridge, a 68-year-old inmate in a wheelchair who has been imprisoned since 1977 for the murder of a 16-year-old girl near Springfield. Aldridge declined to be interviewed about his case, the notes show, and at Clough’s urging, the board turned down Aldridge’s request for parole.

“He should not be sitting there in judgment of anybody,” Edgar County Watchdogs researcher Kraft said.

Jason Sweat, attorney for the Prisoner Review Board, failed to return telephone calls or email.

The Edgar County Watchdogs also filed public records requests seeking Clough’s disciplinary records while a deputy sheriff.

In May, 2015, Clough’s supervisor was directed to counsel him after he was overheard using the slur derogatory towards African Americans, according to Sheriff’s office personnel files. The records from the sheriff, provided to Injustice Watch, were redacted but still readable.

Coles County Sheriff Jimmy Rankin did not return requests seeking comment.

This March, after nearly 23 years with the Coles County Sheriff’s office, Gov. Rauner appointed Clough to fill a vacancy on the board, intended to have 15 members. In a financial disclosure form required of all board members, Clough failed to list his employment and salary with the Coles County Sheriff.

He gave the same answer to that question he gave to all other questions on the form: “N/A.”

The economic statement was signed and dated by Clough on March 2, while he was still employed by the Coles County Sheriff. He submitted his resignation via email to Chief Deputy Tad Freezeland on March 14, post-dating his resignation for March 10, according to the email.

The same day Clough submitted his resignation notice to the Sheriff’s office, Illinois Senator Antonio Muñoz (D-Chicago), chair of the Executive Appointments Committee, introduced a bill to approve his appointment.

Members start serving their terms on the board on temporary appointments before confirmation by the Executive Appointments Committee and the full Senate, and most board members are not officially confirmed until months after they start. According to the Illinois Constitution, appointees are automatically confirmed if senators do not vote within 60 session days of the governor’s appointment.

Responding to questions from reporters on Clough’s background, the Office of the Senate President issued a written statement saying Senate staff from both parties conduct research on the governor’s appointees prior to their confirmation.

“The Committee and the Senate as a whole are cautious in how appointees are confirmed,” the office stated.

Clough was approved with no opposition by both the Senate Executive Appointments Committee and the full Illinois Senate in October, seven months after his start date at the board.