Daily Herald | Retired judge swaps criminal cases for red-light violations
TUA’s report on excessive pension amounts for retired Illinois judges was featured in a story for the Daily Herald.
Henry “Skip” Tonigan III stares intently at the flickering images on a television screen in a large meeting room at the Lakemoor police station, waiting to see if the white car on the traffic video comes to a complete stop.
He watches the 15-second clip, staring at the tires, never turning away. After the cut ends, Tonigan turns to the woman gazing at the same clip on a TV nearby, and speaks loudly in a monotone voice.
“The car didn’t stop rolling. Do you have anything to add?” Tonigan asks the woman.
As she shakes her head no, Tonigan turns away while signing a piece of paper. “I find this to be a violation,” he tells her.
The woman stands and leaves as Tonigan calls out another name. One of the 100 people waiting to have their red-light video violations judged steps to the TV and the process begins anew.
This is how Tonigan spends a portion of his time these days after a long career as a Lake County circuit court judge when his duties included presiding over major criminal cases and lawsuits. In doing so, he’s created a lucrative niche business that’s on top of a six-figure pension.
Tonigan’s status as a former judge has been seen as a plus for his work as an adjudication hearing officer for various towns in Lake and McHenry counties.
Although judicial experience isn’t required for the job, Lakemoor Mayor Todd Weihofen said Tonigan’s resume is why it was easy to go with him when the village needed someone to rule on red-light camera cases after the devices were installed at routes 12 and 120 last year.
“It just made us feel more comfortable knowing that a judge was making the final decision,” Weihofen said. “We knew he would be honest and fair, not only to the people he was overseeing but to the village as well.”
Enjoying small cases
While he once served as chief judge for a busy courthouse, Tonigan said his adjudication hearing officer gigs are not boring. Instead, Tonigan, now 62 and living in Barrington, said he enjoys handing out justice on the smaller scale.
“It comes down to administering questions of the law, to me,” he said. “Whether it’s a murder trial or a zoning matter, it doesn’t matter. I enjoy doing it and do as best a job as I can.”
Tonigan gets the final word on whether a dog was running at large in Hawthorn Woods or someone rolled through a red-light in Lakemoor.
“It really is nice to see the process working,” he said. “I really enjoy administering justice on something a lot more low profile than what I have done in the past.”
At his peak, Tonigan had been ruling on red-light camera violations in six of 10 Lake County towns that have the devices, plus Fox River Grove in McHenry County. He also has handled adjudication hearings in at least three towns for less-serious ordinance violations or other cases.
Documents obtained through Daily Herald open records requests show Tonigan received $130,535 in public money for the red-light camera and ordinance adjudication work from 10 municipalities from 2009 through 2011. Red-light cameras started popping up in the suburbs in 2009.
He also served as special prosecutor for two trials of McHenry County State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi in 2011 that were ended halfway through by a Winnebago County judge due to lack of evidence.
A McHenry County judge ruled in January 2012 that Tonigan should receive about $142,000 of $600,500 as his share of legal and computer consulting firm billings from the Bianchi cases. McHenry County officials have said they’re willing to pay about $250,000 of the total billings, but the matter remains in dispute in an appellate court.
Records show Tonigan received $14,337 to handle an investigation of ethics complaints involving officials at Grayslake Elementary District 46 from June 7, 2011, through Feb. 1, 2012.
His rates have ranged from $170 an hour to be Lakemoor’s red-light camera and adjudication hearing officer to $250 per hour for the ethics probe at District 46 and the two failed Bianchi prosecutions.
Tonigan will have collected $287,157 from the taxpayer-funded jobs from 2009 through 2011 — along with the $154,200 annual pension — if he gets the McHenry County money. That would add up to $749,757 in public funds over the three years.
Despite the appearances, Tonigan said, he doesn’t get to keep all of the money. He said “a major portion” goes to his law firm, Kelleher and Buckley LLC of Barrington. He said about one-third of his time is spent on red-light cameras, while the rest is spent working as a private attorney.
“I also would have made more money if I worked in the private sector my whole life instead of as a judge,” he added.
From judge to hearing officer
Tonigan’s Lake County legal career included serving as presiding judge of the felony, civil, family and misdemeanor divisions. He was chief judge from 1998 until 2000.
During that time, he oversaw many high-profile cases.
On the criminal side, Tonigan sentenced Bolingbrook resident Peter Zeiher to nine years in prison after he was convicted of being drunk when he drove into a vehicle with five teenagers, killing one, at a Deerfield toll plaza in 1997.
He also presided over a $1.9 million lawsuit settlement involving Six Flags Great America in 2002. The family of the late-Kenyon Lewis of Danville contended in the suit he didn’t receive proper medical care from paramedics employed by Six Flags after the 18-year-old suffered an asthma attack.
As chief judge, Tonigan initiated the development plans for permanent branch courts, oversaw the implementation of the court system’s website and started the county’s first juvenile inpatient rehabilitation program.
He began his law career in 1976 after receiving his bachelor’s degree from Cornell College and his law degree from Southern Methodist University.
He was appointed as an associate judge in 1983 and elevated to Lake County circuit judge in 1991. Tonigan retired as a circuit judge in January 2007.
Lake County attorney William Franks, a hearing officer for Antioch and other towns, said he trained Tonigan for his new career. Franks said despite Tonigan’s judicial experience, he had to earn the necessary credentials to preside over the local ordinance cases or red-light camera violations as a hearing officer.
State-mandated adjudication hearing officer training includes an orientation to each subject area that may be decided, observation of hearings and presiding over hypothetical cases. A hearing officer must be a licensed Illinois attorney for a minimum of three years.
Watchdog pension concerns
Tonigan is among Illinois’ retired judges who collect a six-figure pension. The judicial pensions have attracted criticism from various circles including government watchdog Jim Tobin, president of Taxpayers United of America’s Illinois branch.
Illinois’ financial problems dictate that judicial pensions should be limited to about $25,000, Tobin contends, with retirees free to earn extra income if they so desire. He said the $25,000 represents a typical Social Security income.
“These people are retiring at a relatively young age and are getting taxpayer subsidies to do absolutely nothing,” he said.
In May, Taxpayers United issued a report titled “Retired Illinois Judges Raking in Gluttonous Pensions,” with former appellate court justice Tobias Barry leading the top-100 list at $186,764. Tobin said a chief criticism is the retired judges can easily become “pension millionaires,” unlike many other public employees or those in the private sector.
While some retirement benefits have been curbed by recent legislation, only new judges are affected. The vast majority of judges currently on the bench will receive 85 percent of their final salary if they serve 20 years.
Tonigan’s $154,200 pension doesn’t crack Taxpayers United’s top-100 list, which ends at $156,570. Three of Tonigan’s former colleagues on the Lake County bench — Fred Geiger, Jane Drew Waller and Raymond McKoski — are on the list. Justifying his pension, Tonigan said he didn’t pursue greater riches in private practice and deserves what he receives in retirement as a result of his judicial career. He said becoming a judge early and a father later is the reason he continues to seek employment on top of his pension.
“I gave up an opportunity to make more money in private practice by becoming a judge,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tonigan said business hasn’t been as robust in 2012 as it was last year, likely because of controversy that arose from his work in the official misconduct case involving Bianchi in McHenry County. In July, Tonigan did not admit to any liability when he agreed to pay $157,500 to settle a conspiracy lawsuit Bianchi filed against the two prosecutors and a computer firm involved in his trials.
Among the municipal clients he’s lost following the case are Antioch and Fox Lake. This year, he also lost Gurnee, his top client at $40,486 in billings from 2009 through 2011, records show.
Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik said the village decided to replace Tonigan with a hearing officer who is more available, lives closer to the village and is bilingual.
“He did a great job,” Kovarik said. “I had no issue with the work.”