Former LaSalle County state’s attorney Brian J. Towne stands in front of his offices in Ottawa last year. He was indicted Thursday for alleged official misconduct. He is accused of having staff conduct political activity during office hours and of using money generated through his SAFE Unit, a since-disbanded asset forfeiture program, to pay for personal expenses.
Posted September 8, 2017 2:22 PM
Former LaSalle Co. prosecutor indicted for official misconduct
OTTAWA — A special prosecutor has been put on administrative duty after being indicted for official misconduct.
Brian J. Towne was indicted Tuesday in connection with his activities as LaSalle County state’s attorney.
Towne is accused of having his staff conduct political activity during office hours. It is also alleged he used money generated through an asset forfeiture program to pay for personal expenses.
Towne said Thursday the charges were “a vindictive abuse of power” carried out by Karen K. Donnelly, who defeated him in his re-election bid last November.
Donnelly’s office did not return calls seeking comment.
Towne was prosecuting former Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd, for lying on nominating petitions when seeking re-election in 2016. Rudd is scheduled to go on trial later this year. A replacement for Towne hasn’t been named.
A deeper dive
Award-winning reporting by Chicago Lawyer and the Daily Law Bulletin has explored the money trail of Towne’s State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement (SAFE) Unit and the lawsuits challenging it. A timeline of past coverage:
- June 2015 — The 3rd District Appellate Court rebukes Towne’s office for hiring “special investigators” to make arrests and seize property in People v. Ringland, 2015 IL App (3d) 130523.
- December 2015 — An analysis of expense records obtained by Chicago Lawyer through a Freedom of Information Act request showed roughly one-fifth of the spending from Towne’s drug forfeiture account, about $95,000, was spent on travel expenses for law enforcement conferences. That included more than $17,000 in checks made out to Towne and his employees for “per diem” travel payments. Towne stressed the spending went toward important continuing education for his office. The same report showed the SAFE Unit initiated 77 drug-offense prosecutions, resulting in 65 convictions according to records obtained through FOIA. Bank records showed the SAFE account brought in at least $564,606.03 in seized funds between early 2011 and August 2015.
- March 2016 — Continuing to follow the money trail, Chicago Lawyer looked into two LaSalle County bank accounts controlled by Towne, one for portions of civil forfeitures made by SAFE and another for drug fines paid by SAFE arrestees. Combined, the accounts grew by more than $1 million since SAFE was launched in 2011. The Chicago Lawyer article outlined how Towne’s use of the funds may have violated the Cannabis Control Act and Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act by transferring some funds to other government bodies and spending some in ways that appeared to benefit him politically. Among them: A county-funded college scholarship created by Towne and named after him.
- January 2017 — The Illinois Supreme Court hears arguments in Ringland. A state lawyer told the justices the law allows prosecutors broad discretion, citing the “Operation Hollywood” narcotics busts handled jointly by the Cook County Sheriff’s and Cook County State’s Attorney’s offices in the 1990s.
- June 2017 — The state high court, in a 5-2 decision, rules SAFE Unit is unlawful in People v. Ringland, No. 119484. “Based on Towne’s exhortation to ‘go out and enforce the law,’ the SAFE unit essentially operated as a county police force at the direction of Towne, generating its own cases,” Justice Charles E. Freeman wrote. “The legislature could not have intended such a far-reaching result.”