A federal judge in Rockford allowed a former assistant prosecutor to continue his suit against his ex-boss, embattled McHenry County State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi, but not against another of Bianchi’s prosecutors, for allegedly firing him for testifying against Bianchi in a failed misconduct case.
In January 2012, Kirk Chrzanowski filed a nine-count complaint against Bianchi, assistant state’s attorney Michael P. Combs and the County of McHenry, alleging defendants conspired to violate his First Amendment right to free speech and his right to protection under the Illinois Whistleblower Act.
Bianchi had hired Chrzanowski in 2006 as an assistant state’s attorney. In February 2010, a cocaine case arose against 19-year-old Jeremy Reid, with Chrzanowski acting as prosecutor. Reid was a nephew by marriage to Ronald Salgado, Bianchi’s chief investigator and close friend. As the case proceeded, plea bargain negotiations ensued, with Reid pleading guilty in August 2010 in exchange for a four-year prison sentence.
Suspicion later developed Bianchi had improperly used his influence to reduce Reid’s sentence from five to four years. Those suspicions led to charges of official misconduct being brought against Bianchi in 2011. Chrzanowski testified as a prosecution witness both before a grand jury and at Bianchi’s trial, saying Salgado left him an “inappropriate” voicemail about the case and Bianchi gestured to Reid's family at his plea hearing. Bianchi was acquitted in August 2011 after his motion for a directed verdict was granted.
Chrzanowski claimed Bianchi retaliated against him for his testimony by firing him Dec. 2, 2011, but Bianchi countered the termination was because Chrzanowski falsified an entry on an internal document related to the Reid case. According to Chrzanowski, Combs was Bianchi’s “friend and political ally,” who investigated Chrzanowski, at Bianchi’s request, regarding the entry.
Bianchi later lodged a complaint with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission against Chrzanowski in connection with the entry. Commission records do not show any disciplinary action has been taken against Chrzanowski.
A month after his termination, Chrzanowski filed his federal suit, which was later dismissed. The dismissal was overturned on appeal, but Bianchi, Combs and McHenry County filed another motion to dismiss, which Judge Philip G. Reinhard addressed in a ruling Aug. 7.
Reinhard refused to drop Bianchi from the suit, saying Chrzanowski raised a “genuine dispute” as to whether Bianchi fired Chrzanowski because of his testimony, which is an issue for a jury to decide.
To support his position, Reinhard noted Chrzanowski had no negative reports in his personnel file until after his testimony, when Bianchi started placing such comments there. Bianchi also allegedly asked a subordinate to research the question of whether an employee could be fired after testifying. Further, besides Chrzanowski, Bianchi fired or asked for the resignations of four other employees who had testified in the case against him.
Reinhard did agree to dismiss Combs from the suit, saying there was no evidence Combs acted in retaliation, and to the extent he did act, it was only at Bianchi’s direction. Reinhard took note that Chrzanowski did not cite any cases where a non-supervisory employee, such as Combs, was held liable for retaliation under similar circumstances.
A status hearing is set for Aug. 18.
Chrzanowski is represented by the Woodstock firm of Gummerson, Rausch, Wand, Lee and Wombacher. The McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office is defending Bianchi, Combs and McHenry County.
In the past few years, Bianchi has also been found not guilty of charges he used county resources for his re-election campaign and that he improperly dismissed disorderly conduct charges against a campaign donor.