Like many Quad-City residents, Rock Island County Board Chairman Jim Bohnsack heard the rumors about former Rock Island County State's Attorney Jeff Terronez.
He couldn't recall Thursday when he first heard them, but as they persisted, Bohnsack said he suspected "there has got to be something there." For Terronez's sake, he said, he hoped it wasn't true.
Terronez resigned Tuesday after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor count of providing alcohol to a 17-year-old girl on Aug. 15 in East Moline. He received two years probation and was ordered to pay more than $4,000 in fines and court costs.
Bohnsack said the rumors weren't confirmed to him until Oct. 22, when Terronez went to his office and told him he had made a mistake and was under investigation by Illinois State Police. Bohnsack said he never was contacted by Illinois State Police or Chief Judge Jeffrey O'Connor about the investigation before that.
Bohnsack said he doesn't recall ever asking for Terronez's resignation, but he noted that the state's attorney is an elected official, which limited his and the county board's control over the situation. He rejected the idea that he could have done more to remove Terronez from office earlier.
"(Critics) just give me too much power, I guess," he said. "He doesn't have to report to me."
When Terronez first told Bohnsack he had made a mistake, he didn't share details, and the chairman didn't ask. Even if he had, Bohnsack argues he wouldn't have been able to force Terronez to resign.
"It's hard to tell someone to step down because ‘I heard you've been messing around with a girl,'" Bohnsack said, adding he does wish the criminal charge and resignation had come sooner.
After Terronez's plea Tuesday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan called Terronez's relationship with the girl "extremely unprofessional," but she said investigators found no evidence of a sexual relationship.
Finding a new state's attorney
On Thursday, Bohnsack announced plans to form a five-member committee to review candidates for the appointment to Rock Island County state's attorney. The committee will consist of two county board members and three others and will meet in a "timely fashion" to review the candidates and make a recommendation.
Bohnsack will announce the vacancy in May and recommend a candidate to the county board in June. He has 60 days to make an appointment. Assistant State's Attorney Mark Senko is filling the position in an interim capacity.
Assistant Rock Island County State's Attorney Norma Kauzlarich and Silvis attorney John McGehee are the only candidates to confirm their interest so far, although they are considering whether to apply for the temporary appointment.
Both said Terronez's actions were a factor in their decision to run. Kauzlarich, who until recently was the county's lead drug prosecutor, said it's the sole reason behind her decision.
"We're in a bad spot because of everything with Jeff," she said. "For whatever reason, our office has been tainted by his actions ... but we have some quality attorneys here, and what we need is a leader, and I think I can be the leader."
She takes exception to criticism of anyone else in the office other than Terronez.
"Frankly, it's unfair," she said. "Our office staff and attorneys have been lambasted for something we had no control of."
McGehee, who has practiced law for 20 years, handling civil and criminal cases, also wants to restore the office's reputation.
"The office has to have integrity," he said. "It is a very, very important office, and the person in charge of it needs to run it with the confidence of all the people of Rock Island County.
"I think it has fallen from that with Mr. Terronez's actions."
Bohnsack said the timing of Terronez's resignation and guilty plea came as a surprise. He said the former state's attorney went to his office Monday and shared his plans to resign and plead guilty on Tuesday. He asked Bohnsack to delay telling anyone until after Terronez told his staff at a meeting that afternoon.
That meeting was the first confirmation anyone from the state's attorney's office had about Terronez's actions, Kauzlarich said, noting the same rumors circulating in public were going around the state's attorney's office. She first heard the rumors last fall.
"It makes me sad and disappointed that he chose the path that he chose," she said of his behavior.
Bohnsack noted that Terronez's resignation letter was dated April 20, which was the day representatives from the Illinois Attorney General's Office met with Terronez and told him of the pending charge and asked for his resignation and the forfeiture of his pension. Bohnsack noted that Terronez later signed and dated the letter Tuesday, which is when Bohnsack received it.
Bohnsack said that on April 21, Terronez went to his office to ask for additional funding to hire another person on his staff. He said Terronez wanted someone to help with specific clerical work.
At that meeting, Bohnsack said he asked Terronez if he planned to run for re-election next year, and Terronez told him he was not and acknowledged he needed to announce something soon. But he made no mention of plans to resign, even though his meeting with the attorney general's office was the day before. Bohnsack said he thought it was strange when he saw the resignation letter was originally dated April 20.
When asked if he thought Terronez should have resigned earlier, Bohnsack said he would have, but he acknowledged that's easy for him to say now. He noted that Terronez has a family to provide for.
The chairman acknowledged that the former state's attorney's guilty plea is an embarrassment for the county and its leaders.
"The old adage about politicians being bad shows up that way," he said.
Notices announcing the opening for state's attorney were posted in the office Thursday.
Bohnsack said whoever is appointed will serve until the next election. He hopes a special election can wait until the March 2012 primary in order to save the county money.
If that happens, Rock Island County residents would vote for candidates in the primary and the special election, so it's possible there could be two separate winners with the winner of the special election serving until the November general election, Bohnsack said.
Bohnsack said he has heard from four Democrats interested in being elected state's attorney. Senko has said he has no plans to run for office but is interested in remaining in the position until the next election.
(Reporter Kurt Allemeier contributed to this story.)