DuPage County Sheriff John Zaruba has amassed the biggest campaign war chest of any sheriff in Illinois — thanks in part to cash given by deputies he oversees.
His deputies also have gathered petitions for his campaign, kept vandals away from pro-Zaruba signs and even solicited nonemployees to contribute cash to his re-election coffers.
And a Tribune investigation found that deputies who politically helped the sheriff were more likely to be promoted and to receive more lenient discipline.
Some employees said they gladly support their boss, expecting nothing in return. But others said they have felt pressured to give in an atmosphere former Deputy Bill Shreffler called a "sad state of affairs."
"After a while, we all got numb to it," said Shreffler, who retired in 2006.
The sheriff didn't respond to interview requests from the Tribune, which interviewed more than 30 current and former employees and reviewed a decade's worth of pay, promotional, discipline and campaign finance records.
But in a pending court case, Zaruba testified that promotions were based on merit. And his supporters insist he has never pressured employees to give.
"For anybody to do those types of things is insanity, and I don't think the sheriff would ever do that," said supporter Tony Reyes, who chairs a board that works with the office.
The Tribune, however, found that:
--The Zaruba campaign has regularly sent letters to employees seeking donations — helping him raise a much larger portion of his campaign cash from deputies than other current sheriffs. Scores of his employees also have done campaign work.
--Political supporters were more likely to receive promotions — at times over peers who scored higher on tests and job reviews. He promoted one supporter over more than 20 higher-ranking deputies.
--Political supporters also have been more likely to receive lighter discipline in recent years than nonsupporters. One federal suit alleging favoritism led to a $65,000 settlement, while other suits are pending.
Illinois law makes it nearly impossible for the public to track employee giving. A Zaruba employee and spouse can buy $50 tickets to his fundraiser every year without their donations being large enough to be listed.
Reforms have tightened the rules on cash officeholders can take from businesses they regulate or that get government contracts, but not on employee donations.
Watchdog groups say employees can easily feel pressured to give, not only affecting morale but also creating a government where the most qualified employees may be bypassed for promotion for political reasons.
"Any elected officer who specifically targets their employees for contributions would be very troublesome. There's a power relationship there, and a history of abuse in this state," said David Morrison, deputy director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
But even reformers are leery of stepping on an employee's constitutional right to give time or money to his or her boss.
That's created a vacuum for officeholders to cash in from employees.
In Zaruba's 14 years as sheriff, he's largely avoided scandal while modernizing and professionalizing the 550-member office in ways that have gained national accreditation.
But to pursue and keep his job, Zaruba's political fundraising has stayed old-school.
While he was second-in-command at the agency, Zaruba began his political fund. By the time his boss retired nine months later, Zaruba had raised $34,000 to keep the job to which county leaders appointed him. The new sheriff vowed to raise far more.
"I'm a law-enforcement officer and I'm not a politician," he told reporters at the time, "but I understand that I have to play that game."
At last count, he was banking $258,000, and he's raised some of that by turning to those whose jobs he helps control. Zaruba has collected more than $100,000 from at least 89 sworn employees in the last eight years, according to a Tribune analysis of campaign and employment data. And that doesn't count the smaller donations that can't be tracked.
Donors who gave less than $150 every six months by law did not have to be disclosed. Those smaller, undocumented donations made up a fourth of the amount Zaruba raised.
But Reyes said he doesn't believe anyone's arm is "getting twisted for promotions or anything. We're not Cook County here."
Actually, DuPage County has surpassed Cook, according to itemized contributions.
The Tribune compared contributors' identities to a list of sworn personnel at each of the six area sheriff's offices.
The analysis found that 24 percent of Zaruba's itemized contributions came from his officers, not counting civilian employees or the employees' relatives.
The only area sheriff to come close to Zaruba's rate was former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who retired in 2006. Of Sheahan's itemized contributions during his last four years in office, 22 percent came from his deputies, at a time when he was fighting allegations of patronage.
The Tribune analysis found that, during Sheahan's last four years, about 1 in 40 deputies gave to him at levels high enough to be recorded.
Zaruba's rate is 1 in 10.
Letters are sent every year to employees' homes asking them to come to his fall fundraising brunch. Some, including Deputy Kirt Feinstein, said they stopped getting letters if they didn't give or stopped contributing.
The Tribune obtained from employees two solicitation letters, one from 2004 and the other from 2008. The first was addressed to "friend and sheriff's office member" and signed by the sheriff. The latter was addressed just to "friend and supporter" and signed by the sheriff's son, Chris, a county assistant state's attorney then helping with his father's campaign.
The letters noted that employees were not obligated to give. The 2008 letter added that employees weren't encouraged to give, either. Still, Feinstein and other employees said each packet included two tickets with serial numbers on them, which they feared could be traced.
It's illegal for sheriffs to target employees for contributions in California, New York, Ohio and Oklahoma.
But Illinois has no such ban.
Zaruba recently testified in a deposition that the letters would be illegal if included in paychecks or mailed from the office, which they're not. "You mail it from the campaign headquarters, not from the office," he said.
Petitions and stakeouts
Zaruba's employees are tapped for more than cash.
One pending discrimination lawsuit, filed by a fired jailer, alleges that four employees did campaign work for the sheriff on county time.
State law allows employees to do campaign work for bosses if it's off-the-clock.
The Tribune found no proof of employees working on-the-clock. But employees have worked nearly every facet of the sheriff's re-election campaigns.
They have been key to fundraising. By day, Maj. Don Knoll is a top agency administrator who at times has arranged for defense lawyers to see their clients. For the campaign, Knoll personally has called some lawyers and asked for donations, said defense attorney Paul Moreschi and three other lawyers who asked not to be identified.
"I don't even know Zaruba or know if he's good, bad or otherwise, but I like Don Knoll," said Moreschi, who has given at least $640 to Zaruba's campaign since 2003. "He's terribly helpful. If ever I have an issue in the jail where I need to interview a client, he's always there to answer questions and help out. So I don't mind making a small contribution."
Knoll did not respond to an interview request made through the sheriff's office.
Records show at least two employees were on nighttime stakeouts to make sure political rivals didn't tamper with pro-Zaruba signs, according to police reports they filed with other departments to accuse rivals of wrongdoing. The records don't indicate the employees were on duty.
The Tribune found the bulk of the employee work involves the circulation of petitions.
A review of Zaruba's petitions showed his employees got 42 percent of the signatures he used to get on the 2006 ballot and 47 percent of those for the 2010 ballot. The law also requires someone to notarize the signature sheets, and Zaruba's employees did that for 31 percent of signatures in 2006 and 57 percent in 2010.
For more than 4,100 signatures, employees both gathered and notarized them.
In all, more than 90 employees helped with petitions.
Among them was Ron Kerstein, who also helped distribute campaign signs, hand out literature at train stations and conduct a stakeout. He said all was done on his own time with no pressure from the sheriff.
"I am 110 percent behind John Zaruba," said Kerstein, who retired as a sergeant in May. "I worked in the campaign because I wanted him to be sheriff."
Still, prolific use of employees for campaign work concerns some reform advocates, who argue that some workers may not be true believers.
"You should not have people who work for you doing political work, no matter how 'voluntary' it is," said Chicago civil rights attorney Michael Shakman, considered a leader of the fight to end area patronage practices. "It's not going to appear voluntary to the employees. They're going to think they have to do it to keep their jobs."
Retired Sgt. Ray Rodriguez and some other current and former employees said the department's culture increasingly made many feel obligated to give. Their fears, they said, were fueled by examples of promotions or light disciplines given to employees who politically supported the sheriff.
"There was no correlation between job performance and promotions," said Rodriguez, a onetime commander of the county's major crimes task force, who left in 2003.
Critics point to the testing process that factors into promotions to sergeant and lieutenant.
The DuPage merit board — chaired by Reyes — administers promotional tests. Those results are combined with scores from job reviews done by the department. The end result is a list of promotable people, ranked by how they scored.
For police departments in non-home rule municipalities, state law requires they promote off the list in order of top scorers. But not for sheriff's offices.
While Zaruba did at times promote in order, the Tribune found seven times since 2008 when someone — usually a stronger financial supporter — was promoted out of order to sergeant or lieutenant.
Department policy doesn't specifically require in-order promotions, although it says promotions "shall normally be made" from the three highest scorers.
Yet in the most recent sergeants list, records show the sheriff in December promoted the top scorer of 26 and then reached down to promote a detective who worked on the sheriff's re-election campaigns and was ranked 23rd. Five months later, the sheriff promoted the second-highest scorer on the list, with no promotions off the list since, according to county records.
The issue has been raised in federal court. Jail deputy Susan Lakics has a pending discrimination suit accusing the department of downgrading her reviews and, when she still scored well enough on a 2006 test to be promoted to sergeant, passing her up to promote a lower-scoring deputy.
Zaruba testified in a deposition that he doesn't recall why Lakics wasn't promoted but said promotions are given to those "best qualified by their skills, knowledge, and ability to take whatever sergeant position" is open.
Lakics blamed it, in part, on political favoritism, which she testified in a deposition was a "well-known fact" in the agency.
"If you don't contribute to the sheriff's campaign, (you) won't go too far," she testified.
Top jobs to givers
Other promotions and coveted assignments are not covered by the civil-service laws, including the upper management roles of major and chief.
That means Zaruba can promote whomever he wants to those jobs.
In those top jobs since 2003, 16 of 17 were listed as campaign supporters.
But not all of those promoted can be linked to political support, particularly in the lower-level job of corporal or specialty job of detective. Kerstein was promoted to corporal, detective and sergeant during his 25-year career and didn't attribute it to his political support. He said he once asked to be a juvenile detective but was denied.
But one of those promoted to corporal, Daniel Potter, said he thinks it was due, in part, to his early political support for the sheriff — a man who wasn't as overtly political as predecessors but still seemed to take politics into account, he said.
The retired deputy, a Zaruba supporter, said he never felt pressure to give and didn't think all promotions were politically based.
But, he said, "obviously there's times when people got jobs because they contributed."
"He was just kind of returning favors."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times