State police say clerk was tipped off to drug surveillance

Bruce Rushton

An Illinois State Police special agent is under investigation for allegedly warning Sangamon County Clerk Joe Aiello to stay away from a cocaine dealer’s house that was under surveillance.

The agent, Robert M. Jennings, is now facing discipline from the Illinois State Police Merit Board. Aiello, invoking the Fifth Amendment, declined to testify during a board hearing on the matter April 9.

On Monday, State Police Director Larry Trent filed a petition in Sangamon County Circuit Court asking a judge to order Aiello to testify.

In court paperwork, Trent said that Aiello, who has not been charged with a crime, was under criminal investigation in the fall of 2005 and that Jennings warned him to stay away from the home of Gerald Vondebur, who was under surveillance by state police and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Trent also said that Jennings told internal affairs investigators that Aiello had used drugs “for several years” and “dabbled in it quite a bit.”

Aiello declined comment Wednesday, as he has since his name surfaced two years ago in connection with the investigation of a cocaine ring that sent nine people to prison, including Vondebur, who pleaded guilty to trafficking more than five kilograms of cocaine.

In February, Charles Zalar, a special prosecutor assigned to the case, announced that no charges would be filed against Aiello and five others whose alleged involvement in the ring was reviewed.

In an interview Wednesday, Aiello would not answer when asked whether he has used illegal drugs.

“I’m not at liberty to say,” said Aiello, who makes $98,000 a year and was unopposed when he won re-election in 2006. He has served as county clerk since 1993.

Aiello also would not say why he had declined to testify during Jennings’ disciplinary hearing.

“I cannot discuss that issue,” he said.

Aiello wouldn’t say why he couldn’t discuss his refusal to testify or why he isn’t free to say whether he has used drugs. Federal authorities have granted him immunity, and state prosecutors have said no charges are planned. Aiello has already given information to state police internal-affairs investigators, thereby waiving any Fifth Amendment rights, Trent says in court documents.

“Aiello is in no real danger of incrimination of a crime if he is compelled to answer the questions ... because the answers will in no way implicate Aiello in a crime,” assistant state attorney Amy Gerloff wrote in Trent’s petition seeking a court order compelling the county clerk’s testimony.

The documents filed in court Tuesday present the clearest picture to date of Aiello’s alleged involvement with drugs in a case that has forced two assistant state’s attorneys to resign after admitting they had used cocaine. Both have been suspended from the bar. John Maurer, an attorney who worked as a part-time public defender, was disbarred after admitting he’d used cocaine and sold investigative documents to a dealer.

In his complaint filed with the police merit board, Trent said that Jennings, a longtime friend of Aiello, learned that Vondebur was under investigation in the fall of 2005 and told the county clerk to stay away from the dealer’s home. The compaint also said that Jennings, 49, repeatedly asked investigators whether Aiello had been seen at Vondebur’s home, continued socializing with the county clerk after finding out Aiello was on surveillance videotapes and wiretaps and alerted Aiello prior to the service of a search warrant.

“It is possible that his (Jennings’) actions may have obstructed the federal investigation in that the Oct. 28, 2005, search of Vondebur’s residence yielded only cocaine residue,” Trent said in the merit board complaint.

The merit board, which has the power to discipline state police employees, is considering five charges against Jennings that are rooted in his association with Aiello. Charges include disclosure of confidential information, associating with a person under investigation, conflict of interest, interference with other investigations and conduct unbecoming an officer.

Guy Studach, Jennings’ attorney, declined comment because the case against his client is pending.

Jennings, who is paid $85,129 a year, had a chance to earn overtime by helping with surveillance in the case against Vondebur, but he declined, according to Trent’s merit board complaint.

“Respondent (Jennings) was apprised of the nature of the investigation but did not volunteer to work ... and indicated he knew too many people who were involved in drug investigations, had grown up in the area, and that ‘Springfield was too small of a town,’” Trent said.

Bruce Rushton can be reached at (217) 788-1542 or