Convictions don’t stop Harvey official from reclaiming old post
BY STEVE WARMBIR Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org June 11, 2012 7:48PM
Janet Rogers, formerly known as Janet Thomas, when she was booked into the Stephenson County Jail May 24, 2004.
Updated: August 23, 2012 9:53AM
Janet Rogers has two felony convictions and once had her home raided by the feds.
But the retired public high school teacher has a passion for public service — that’s not being stopped by her criminal record.
In 2000, Secret Service agents raided her south suburban Harvey home as part of a counterfeiting investigation. While a neighbor went to prison, Rogers was never charged.
Two years later, Rogers wasn’t as fortunate. In a separate case, she was charged with felony theft and state benefits fraud and convicted at trial two years later.
A judge sentenced her to 180 days in jail, fined her $7,000 and ordered her to pay back more than $10,000 to the state and federal governments.
Those convictions knocked her off a Harvey school board.
Back then, she was known as Janet Thomas.
Last year, she ran for the same school board job, under her current married name, Janet Rogers.
And she won.
Her fellow school board members, which includes her husband, welcomed her back by appointing her president of the school board of Harvey School District 152.
In a brief interview last week, Rogers said: “I have quite a story to tell” but declined to answer questions, citing stress. She said “a lot” of people with felonies sit on school boards. She declined later interview requests.
Various state laws appear to address Rogers’ situation, but interpretations of them vary. Attorneys for Rogers and the school board argue her re-election is legal, while other legal experts, including the Illinois appellate court, contend felons should not be able to run for school board at all.
“It’s stunning,” said Peter Buh, a former assistant attorney general, now in private practice, who prosecuted Rogers in 2004 for vastly understating her income when she applied over several years for college financial aid for her son.
“It’s extremely disturbing that a convicted felon would place herself in a position to be president of a school board,” Buh said.
Ann Spillane, the chief of staff for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said Monday that Rogers “was convicted of very serious crimes. Her current position raises significant concerns for us, and we are reviewing this quickly to determine our next steps.”
Those steps could include the attorney general’s office going to court to have Rogers removed from office.
Rogers’ fellow school board members, though, have a different view of her. Even before she was elected in 2011, they appreciated her so much they had looked into appointing her to a vacant board position — but got a legal opinion nixing the idea, according to two former school officials.
Rogers, through a spokesman, offered a legal opinion she commissioned herself, arguing her recent election is legal. The school board has a similar opinion but refuses to release it.
Other legal experts, though, view state law differently.
Last month, a state appellate court ruled a man with a felony theft conviction shouldn’t even be allowed to run for a spot on a Peoria school board, much less sit on it.
And veteran attorney Burt Odelson, an expert in municipal, election and school law, said in an interview that Rogers “is not eligible to hold that seat.”
Rogers, 57, retired from teaching at the Bloom Township High School District in May 2010 and is getting a pension of about $57,000 a year. Bloom Township officials declined to comment Monday if Rogers was ever disciplined for her felonies, but Rogers’ convictions were not the type that automatically disqualify someone from teaching.
Before those convictions, in 2000, Secret Service agents, armed with search warrants, raided Rogers’ Harvey home and the house next door after a confidential informant said he was told counterfeiting equipment had been moved into Rogers’ home, and counterfeit money was found, allegedly linked to a man in Rogers’ home.
Rogers’ spokesman, Melvin Caldwell, said Monday that Rogers was set up by a political enemy, who allegedly had counterfeit money put in her trash, prompting the search. A neighbor was convicted of counterfeiting and sentenced to nearly three years in prison. But Rogers knew nothing about any counterfeiting and cooperated with law enforcement, Caldwell said.
As school board president, Rogers gets high marks from her supporters.
Retired Harvey District 152 Superintendent Lela Bridges-Webb, who knew Rogers from her first stint on the school board, praised her leadership and has no problem with her felonies.
“I saw the progressiveness that took place under her leadership,” Bridges-Webb said.
A former foe of Rogers, Keith Price, a Harvey alderman, tried but failed to get Rogers knocked off the ballot last year. Price lost a ruling from the local electoral board on a technical basis.
Price said that today, he likes what Rogers is doing.
“I think they’re working for the best interests of the children,” Price said.
Price himself was removed from the same school board by court action a few years ago because he held several elected positions in town, creating a conflict.
Contributing: Frank Main