Thursday, July 2, 2020

High-profile Arizona political race pulls in the Save-A-Life Foundation scandal & the Annabel Melongo cases

Just when I thought I'd heard the last of the Save-A-Life Foundation (SALF) scandal and the Annabel Melongo cases, both turned up this week in a political campaign scrum in Phoenix.

Some quick catch-up.

I've called the SALF scandal -- which I uncovered in 2004 and subsequently drove through the media via dozens of exposes -- a microcosm of Illinois corruption.

SALF was a high-profile, politically-connected Chicago nonprofit that received $9 million in federal and state tax dollars to provide first aid training to school kids.

The bad news? Records indicate that few students received any training.

In late 2009, a few months after dropping a failed, nuisance lawsuit filed against me and two other critics, SALF was dissolved.

There she became an official in the Republican party, a seeming slap in the face to some of SALF's biggest funders and promoters, all of whom have a (D) after their names: Dick Durbin, Arne Duncan, Gery Chico, and Lisa Madigan.

Meanwhile on a parallel track, former SALF employee Annabel Melongo was caught up in a seemingly endless legal nightmare.

P: How does Annabel Melongo fit into the SALF saga and would you consider her a sympathetic figure?

Peter Heimlich: On October 31, 2006, Spizzirri swore out felony charges against Annabel Melongo, a former SALF employee who left the company months earlier. Based on Spizzirri's word and little else, Schiller Park cops arrested Melongo on dubious charges that she destroyed SALF's computers. That triggered eight years of relentless, baseless, and ultimately unsuccessful prosecutions of Melongo by the Illinois criminal justice system. In a wide-ranging federal civil rights lawsuit, Melongo is now suing Spizzirri and others responsible for the abuse she endured.

That abuse included a nearly two-year jail stretch. Here's what happened.

Melongo hosted a website challenging the bogus computer tampering charges which included recordings of two mundane phone converations she had with a court clerk.

In retaliation, the Cook County State's Attorney charged her under the state's draconian Eavesdropping Act for which a judge levied a $300,000 bond against her.

A $300,000 bond for uploading recordings of two routine phone calls? Welcome to the Cook County justice system.

By then Melongo was near-destitute and didn't have the $30K to put up for the bond so at considerable expense, Illinois taxpayers paid her room and board at the County Jail while their legal system continued to kick her around.

But Melongo was made of tough stuff. She became an able jailhouse lawyer and through her efforts, helped strike down the Eavesdropping Act in the Illinois Supreme Court in early 2014 and a few months later, per my scoop, the state then dropped the bogus computer tampering charges.

Meanwhile, Melongo filed a wide-ranging civil rights lawsuit against Spizziri and a number of law enforcement officials who unsuccessful tried to ruin her.

Earlier this year the case wrapped up with Melongo getting an undisclosed settlement from Spizzirri.

I figured that was the final act, but this week found the ghosts of SALF haunting a contentious political race in the Grand Canyon State.

Via the June 30 Arizona Republic, Maricopa County attorney candidate accused of misconduct in decade-old case by Lauren Castle:

A decade-old civil lawsuit out of Illinois is being used to attack the credibility of Maricopa
County attorney candidate Julie Gunnigle.

...Gunnigle, a former Cook County Assistant State's Attorney, was forced to address allegations of misconduct related to her role in the Illinois lawsuit after an employee with the Mass Liberation Project mentioned the case during a recent candidate forum.

...While Gunnigle was with Cook County, she helped prosecute Annabel Melongo, who worked for a now-defunct nonprofit organization called the Save-A-Life Foundation.

In 2006, Melongo was accused of deleting financial files and charged with computer tampering.

...Melongo alleged that she discovered some discrepancies in her court records and started to
record phone calls with court reporters. She posted the recordings and transcripts on a
website chronicling her efforts to defend herself.

In 2008, she was arraigned on new charges of computer tampering. The docket sheet said she wasn't there but the hearing transcript stated she was present, according to a civil lawsuit.

The Illinois assistant attorney general directed a forensic expert to look into the website, according to court records. Later that year, Gunnigle and two other prosecutors with the Cook County State's Attorney's Office started an investigation.

Melongo was later charged with eavesdropping and using information that was obtained through a eavesdropping device. She spent about 20 months in jail awaiting trial.

Before the trial, Melongo filed a motion to dismiss claiming the state's eavesdropping law was unconstitutional. The case eventually went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which overturned the state's eavesdropping law in 2014.

In 2013, Melongo filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Gunnigle and other prosecutors, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, law enforcement, court reporters, a forensic science expert, the state's assistant attorney general and the attorney general.

She accused officials of conspiracy, unreasonable seizure, false arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution, emotional distress, consumer fraud and deceptive business practices, and breach of fiduciary duty. The lawsuit also accused officials of violating her rights of free speech, equal protection, freedom of press and petition.

The lawsuit was dismissed last year after a settlement was reached.

...Shortly after the forum, Gunnigle wrote an open letter to voters. She said the case taught her a lot about the problems of the criminal justice system.

...(Will) Knight, one of Gunnigle's opponents, sent a letter to the Maricopa County Democratic Party about his thoughts on the incident.

..."I will never shrink away from my commitment to protect marginalized communities from powerful people," he said. "Maricopa County’s voters are tired of footing the bill for public officials who abuse vulnerable populations, and Ms. Gunnigle’s brand of Chicago-style corruption is not welcome."