Watchdog group aims to sniff out truth behind fire protection district's missing tapes
A case involving a Tri-State Fire Protection District official charged with submitting a fraudulent report in 2015 may soon reveal the truth behind possibly dubious circumstances lurking within the Burr Ridge-based district.
Originally at issue was the questionable aptness of Michael Orrico’s dual relationship with the fire district as both a trustee and as an equipment vendor.
Reporting in the Edgar County Watchdogs' (ECW) Illinois Leaks publication, principal writer Kirk Allen said last month that Orrico, who sells gear for Fire Service Inc., failed to mention his employment in a key disclosure statement for his trustee position. Fire Service Inc. is based in various locations, including Naperville.
According to Illinois state law, anyone filing a statement of economic interests who deliberately puts on record “a false or incomplete statement” is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, so when the 18th Judicial Circuit Court of DuPage County in Wheaton finally issued an arrest warrant for Orrico Sept. 16 this year, ECW expressed approval.
“Justice is slow in Illinois, but at least there does appear to be hope when it comes to holding public officials accountable, and this is a perfect example of how we can make a difference,” Allen said.
Named as a defendant in the case, Orrico was required to make a 10 percent bond deposit and appear in court for a bail bond hearing Oct. 11. Terms of the warrant forbade him from leaving the state of Illinois without the court’s permission, limiting Orrico’s whereabouts to an eight-county range.
In part, the charges read, “on or about March 16, 2015 … Michael J. Orrico committed the offense of Filing a False Statement of Economic Interest, in that the … trustee of the Tri-State Fire Protection District, willfully … failed to list on that statement … his employment with Fire Service Inc. and his title or the description of any position held with Fire Service, Inc., from which the defendant earned income.”
Allen commended the Darien Police Department for its action, saying, “We are proud to see that the Darien Police Department investigated this alleged crime and found the same thing that we reported.”
ECW plans to continue tracking developments in the case against Orrico, 57, who is listed as residing at 3510 Tyler Drive in Joliet.
“It’s encouraging to see enforcement of our laws against those alleged to have violated them,” Allen said. “Public officials statewide should pay attention to this matter as we believe this is the first time we have seen this particular law enforced and will hopefully be the beginning of holding violators accountable.”
As it happened, Orrico, one of three elected Tri-State Fire Protection District trustees, had disagreed with his colleagues in the past about records handling. As his case unfolded, details about missing records came to light, and further fanning the flames were apparently obscure circumstances by which records were lost to begin with.
In December 2013, Tri-State reported that confidential tape recordings were “missing” from a safe in its Burr Ridge facility. The audio documentation regarded executive sessions of the district’s board of trustees.
“Whatever has been going on during executive session remains a mystery,” the Chicago-based Better Government Association (BGA) said in 2013. The investigative nonprofit previously had published a series of articles on the district’s Darien branch, keeping its eyes peeled on spending records and alleged conflicts of interest and other irregularities.
“According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, trustees are allowed to convene in private to discuss sensitive material such as litigation or personnel matters, provided certain rules are followed,” the BGA said. “Among the rules, they must keep a ‘verbatim record’ – either video or audio – of all sessions closed to the public.”
Tri-State allegedly had stored its closed-session records at the shared residence of trustee Jill Strenzel and Fire Chief Michelle Gibson, longtime partners. According to BGA, Orrico asked to hear the recordings, but of seven meetings arranged specifically for that purpose, four or more were canceled.
In a bizarre twist, Strenzel fell outside the station on Nov. 18, 2013, breaking two tape recorders in the process and sending a staffer to buy a new one. She then claimed that someone broke into a safe containing tapes and notes at the Burr Ridge Station at 10S110 S. Madison St. on Nov. 21.
“Strenzel … started to pull papers out of the safe, ‘at which time she stopped and was worried that unlawful entry had been gained,’” according to records obtained by BGA. Police determined that nothing was missing and classified the “burglary” as “suspicious circumstances” due to lack of evidence.
Strenzel followed up at the scene with speculative questions regarding what should be done if “someone had erased the tapes using a magnet.” The next day, the police were recalled to the same station and were asked to move items into a new safe. Records indicate that the officers declined to physically perform the task, instead observing Strenzel doing so.
At the next regular board meeting in mid-December, Strenzel and one other trustee voted to keep closed session meeting minutes confidential, with Orrico the sole opponent.
In addition to its Station 3, Tri-State Fire Protection District operates three additional stations serving parts of Darien, Willowbrook, Burr Ridge, Willow Springs and unincorporated DuPage County.
Edward County Watchdogs was founded in July 2011 to advance truth, transparency and accountability in Illinois. Its Illinois Leaks site maintains a tip line for news and has been featured in Forbes magazine.