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May 20, 2024

Shelby County – Union President Resigns After Exposure Of Private Use Of Public Equipment

By Kirk Allen & John Kraft

On June 27, 2023

Shelby Co. (ECWd) –

Shelby County AFSCME Union President Lisa Sweeny has tendered her resignation outlining July 5th, 2023, will be her last day.

During a January 2023 special meeting, Sweeny read a prepared speech as the union president, and after the meeting Elizabeth Reagan handed out copies of the prepared speech and claimed it was written by AFSCME.  When I asked who the actual author was she said the union.

We issued a freedom of information request to the clerk’s office for all speeches written on office computers as we had reason to believe her speech was prepared on county equipment, during county time, which would be a violation of Article VIII Section 1(a) of our state constitution if true.

The initial response included a response from David Beck, regional director of AFSCME Council 31 in Springfield. His response reads as a threat of an unfair labor practice of the County Clerk if she were to release the requested record.

“It appears to us that this FOIA could be directed at files that were generated by AFSCME officers in their role as union representatives. As such, it is the position of A~SUVIE that such documents are not only exempt from FOIA but would be considered privileged Union materials which the Illinois Labor Relations Act (5 ILCS 315) would prohibit a public employer from turning over to other entities. AFSCME would, therefore, consider it an Unfair Labor Practice for a public employer to release such documents.” (David Beck)

I asked the clerk that if there are prepared speeches and she believes they are exempt to simply cite the applicable exemption.  If no such exemption exists for this record, provide the record.  If there are no records, respond accordingly. We must note there are no exemptions found in the Labor Act cited even remotely close to these records. The Illinois Public Relations Act (5 ILCS 315/6 ), outlines what is exempt, and we are confident the union rep making such a claim was doing nothing more than attempting to protect the local union president.

The response I received from Sweeny included not one speech, but three that were written on public computers.  (Special Meeting speech, ARPA speech, and  AFSCME speech ).  These speeches were used for her public comment at board meetings and had nothing to do with her duties in the Clerk’s office.  The metadata reflects at least one speech was done while on county time. Such use of county equipment and time for private purposes appears to be a clear violation of the Constitution.

While the hyperbole on social media raves about innocent until proven guilty, which we agree with, Sweeny’s speech made an outright statement of fact against the Treasurer breaking the law even though no court has found that to be the case. Sweeny stated:

“It is a necessary lawsuit because treasurer, Erica Firnhaber, is breaking labor law. How many times have we heard that county officials that break the law need to be held accountable? That is what we are trying to do” (full video of her reading the speech is below)

Sweeny claimed the lawsuit against the treasurer was done for the purpose of holding people accountable for breaking the law. Our FOIA was for the purpose of gathering facts and holding county officials accountable to our laws.  While it ‘appears” to be a violation of the Constitution, we are not claiming it was a violation as that is a matter for the courts.  As this pertains to public information, it is clear public property was used for no public purpose.

While we do not know the actual reason for Sweeny’s resignation, we would like to believe she held herself accountable by resigning for using county equipment for private purposes. If an actual criminal complaint was brought on this matter claiming a violation of Article VIII Section 1(a) of our State Constitution and it went to an actual trial, it could be a class 3 felony and she could lose her pension among other punishments deemed appropriate by a judge if found guilty.

The County Clerk, Jessica Fox, took immediate measures to address this issue before any response to my FOIA was issued. She had all her employees sign an equipment use policy.  While we do not believe any such policy is necessary considering our State Constitution already prohibits private use of public property, we do appreciate the swift implementation of such a policy so that in the future they cannot claim they didn’t know they couldn’t use public property for their own private agenda.

A future article will include additional correspondence with the Clerk and her position on the matters outlined above.

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