New rule in place for political activity in the Heights

DeWayne Bartels
Will this photo being used in the campaign of Darin LaHood, Republican candidate for Peoria county state's Attorney, get three Peoria Heights Police officers in trouble with the law?

The rules have changed in Peoria Heights in regards to police officers wearing uniforms or using squad cars in any political activities. 

Peoria Heights police officers will no longer be allowed to participate in election activities while in uniform or use village squad cars in photos that could be used in election campaign materials.

Peoria Heights police chief Dustin Sutton made that decision this week about three weeks after a Peoria Times-Observer investigation revealed that use of a village squad car in campaign materials for Darin LaHood, Republican candidate for Peoria County State’s Attorney, might be a violation of election ethics law. The campaign materials in question promoted the fact that every law enforcement agency in Peoria County endorsed LaHood’s campaign.

“Our officers while engaged in any political activity will use generic T-shirts with no Peoria Heights insignia,” Sutton said.

“I got burned on it.”

Sutton said he and his officers assumed the village insignia would be blacked out in any campaign materials as is common practice when political campaigns use police officers photos.

That did not happen in the LaHood campaign materials.

“The officers didn’t have control of that,” Sutton said.

Sutton said the union had no objections to his new rule.

“They feel bad about the situation they and I were put in,” Sutton said.

The use of the photograph promoted an inquiry by the office of the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office at the request of Sutton.

Recently the state’s attorney’s office  told the Peoria Journal Star they would not be investigating the matter further.

It remains unclear if, in fact, there was a violation of state election ethics law.

No one contacted at the state level who oversees elections or ethics would say one way or the other.

Three state employees said that call had to come from Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons.

Steve Sterm, an attorney with the Illinois State Board of Elections, earlier this month, would not comment on whether any of the officers violated the law.

He said an opinion on that should come from the Peoria County State’s Attorney or someone with the state’s ethics commission.

Chad Fornoff, head of the state ethics commission, also declined to say whether the officers in the photo violated the law.

“Whatever we would say would not be binding. It would have to be addressed by the state’s attorney,” Fornoff said.

Sutton said in early October he wanted this issue cleared up soon.

“I completely understand and agree with this law,” Sutton said. “This was a union issue.”

Sutton said right from the beginning he did not believe there was a legal issue with his officers.

He said the public act talks of “intentional” violation. Sutton said his officers could hardly have done something intentionally if they were not aware of the law. But, he conceded, ignorance of the law is not a justification.

The  photograph, in question, was taken after the three officers were off-duty, according to Sutton.

Sutton said he does not know who took the photo or if the officers were even aware their photo had been taken and would be used for political purposes.

Lyons’ office has not returned phone calls seeking comment.