UPDATE: Jeff Terronez’s attorney, Warren Lupel of Chicago, responded to a request for comment on the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission hearing board’s decision released on Friday. The hearing board recommended that Terronez’s law license be suspended for two years, and the commission immediately appealed the decision.
Lupel’s comment: “I have no specific comment since the ARDC has already publicly announced their decision to appeal. Mr. Terronez and I while disappointed that the ARDC believes that the time and substantial expense involved in an appeal is warranted given the enormous adverse consequences to all concerned including the lives of family, friends and the people in the underlying matter, he will of course be unable to make any plans for his future until the appeal process has been concluded.”
Terronez panel calls for suspension
By Barb Ickes
ORIGINAL STORY: A disciplinary panel’s recommendation that former Rock Island County State’s Attorney Jeff Terronez’s law license be suspended until October 2013 already is being appealed.
Just hours after a three-member hearing board of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission submitted its report on the Terronez case Friday, the ARDC vowed to continue to push for his disbarment.
Neither Terronez nor his attorney, Warren Lupel, returned phone calls seeking comment.
In an April hearing in Springfield, three attorneys who make up the board heard arguments on the ARDC’s two-count complaint against Terronez, 41, who pleaded guilty a year earlier to buying alcohol for a minor. He was sentenced to two years of probation and was ordered to pay a $2,500 fine, plus court costs, and agreed to forfeit his pension and never run for public office again.
The hearing board recommends disciplinary action to the Illinois Supreme Court, and its findings were released Friday in a 26-page report.
The minor in the Terronez alcohol-delivery case was the victim in the sexual-assault case against Jason Van Houtte of Moline. The former high school teacher and coach now is serving a seven-year prison sentence.
Terronez prosecuted Van Houtte in 2009, meeting the victim one month after she turned 16. He said he continued a relationship with the girl after Van Houtte’s conviction, so he could look out for her best interests.
She is identified in court records as JW.
At his April hearing, however, Terronez, who is married, also said he used his relationship with JW to get closer to one of her 19-year-old friends. On the witness stand, he sobbed as he admitted he had been physically attracted to the other girl, identified as BY.
Despite his admission, the hearing board’s report states, “… his use of JW as an intermediary to gain access to her friends was not clearly established by the evidence.”
The report also indicates the panelists regarded Terronez’s sexually explicit texts to the sex-assault victim and his taking the two teens to a hotel in Champaign as “exceedingly poor judgment,” which did not rise to the level of overreaching, as the ARDC had argued.
Terronez admitted to sending more than 1,000 text messages to JW, including references to her sexual activity with her boyfriend. He also told her that she was “incredibly cute,” that he might be falling in love with her and that he “couldn’t think straight” after seeing a picture of her in her United Township High School cheerleading uniform.
Terronez, however, “explained he was teasing JW and joking around with her” and “admitted the messages were entirely inappropriate, and he regrets sending them,” the hearing board reports states.
Terronez also told JW he was divorced and admitted to creating fictionalized women for the purpose of seeming younger to the girl.
However, the hearing board categorized those claims as “puffery or exaggeration” that did not rise to the level of an ethical violation.
In its complaint, the ARDC also accused Terronez of lying to police in an effort to obstruct their investigation into his relationship with JW, which included allegations he bought alcohol for her.
“He stated his purpose was to keep the information from his wife, because he was not ready to admit his despicable conduct to her,” the report states. “He noted his conduct has had an adverse impact on his marriage and on his relationship with his daughter, who was 12 years old at the time.”
The hearing board report indicates the panelists did not believe that Terronez was merely buying time to disclose his actions to his family. He not only lied to police during questioning Aug. 20, 2011, the panelists pointed out, but he continued to lie during an interview on Aug. 24.
“… he then had several days to apprise his family of the situation,” the report states. “His failure to do so and his continued litany of lies on Aug. 24 point to the fact he was trying to protect himself,” constituting dishonest conduct.
The hearing board’s recommendation that Terronez’s law license be suspended for two years, retroactive to the interim suspension that was approved by the Illinois Supreme Court on Oct. 12, 2011, represents a considerable departure from the full disbarment that the ARDC had sought.
The panelists said, however, he “spoke convincingly of his immeasurable regret and eternal shame,” and he poses no threat of future harm to the public, among other mitigating factors.
The hearing board also pointed out: “The misconduct that we have found, however, is of a very serious nature.”
• “By failing to curtail his own criminal conduct while at the same time directing the prosecution of other individuals, (Terronez) failed to ensure that the laws were enforced with an even hand, thus causing the administration of justice to be prejudiced,” states the report, regarding the finding that Terronez’s conduct was prejudicial to the administration of justice, as claimed in Count I.
• “When an attorney fails to cooperate with a police investigation and overtly attempts to conceal his conduct with lies and false scenarios, the reputation of the legal profession is clearly jeopardized. When that attorney is an elected official, entrusted to prosecute dishonest behavior, the damage is even greater,” states the report, regarding the finding that Terronez engaged in conduct that tends to prejudice the administration of justice and bring the legal profession into disrepute, as claimed in Count II.
Rock Island County Circuit Judge Walter Braud was one of six character witnesses to testify on Terronez’s behalf.
“We also agree with Judge Braud’s assessment that (Terronez’s) rapid rise to a position of power at a fairly young age most likely played a role in his reckless decisions,” the panelists wrote. “His fall from that position, therefore, will constantly remind him of the need to consider the ethical implications of his actions and to proceed with caution and forethought.”
Terronez was about a month shy of turning 33 when he first was elected Rock Island County state’s attorney in 2004. He was 40 at the time of his guilty plea and resignation in April 2011.
With the appeal of the hearing board’s decision, the matter next will be taken up by the ARDC’s appellate tribunal, the review board.
Previous story: Former Rock Island County State’s Attorney Jeff Terronez will have his law license back in about a year if the Illinois Supreme Court follows the recommendation made today by a hearing board of the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission.
The three members of the panel indicated they were in agreement with Rock Island Circuit Judge Walter Braud, who testified on Terronez’s behalf during an April hearing in Springfield. Braud said the 41-year-old’s rapid rise to a position of power played a role in his reckless decisions, and the panelists agreed, according to the report.
Quad-City Times staff is working on more complete coverage of the hearing board’s 26-page report.