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South suburban school board has three felons on it

James Coleman

James Coleman

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Updated: July 3, 2013 6:03AM

Three members of a south suburban school board are felons — and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office is considering whether to seek their removal from office, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

Joe Louis Sherman, Mark Mitchell and James J. Coleman are members of Ford Heights Public School District 169. They have presided over an estimated budget of $8.8 million for the current school year.

Court records show that Sherman was convicted of battery and retail theft, Mitchell of marijuana possession, and Coleman of illegal possession of a gun — all felonies.

Elected school district officials are barred from holding office if they are “convicted in any court in the state of Illinois or of the United States of a felony, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime.” Last year, a state appeals court upheld a decision to bar a Peoria man from running for a school board seat because he was convicted of a felony. He was convicted of theft in 1984.

“It’s clear-cut,” said Burt Odelson, a south suburban attorney who specializes in municipalities and school boards. “You can’t hold an elected school office if you’re convicted of a felony. I’ve been doing this for a long time. There is no wiggle room.”

Odelson said the state’s attorney’s office should file lawsuits to remove Sherman, Mitchell and Coleman from office.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, would not discuss the individual Ford Heights board members’ cases. But she said: “We have been made aware of the allegations and will continue to review the information and will take action if warranted.”

The three men aren’t the only school board members in the Chicago area with criminal pasts.

The Sun-Times reported in April that Janet Rogers, the board president of Harvey Public School District 152, received pardons from Gov. Pat Quinn for her felonies.

Rogers was convicted of felony theft and state benefits fraud in 2004, and the Illinois attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit in January to remove her from office. But Quinn pardoned her in April, allowing her to keep her seat. Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli and Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg were among the public officials who wrote letters to Quinn in support of a pardon for Rogers.

Meanwhile, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office filed a lawsuit in January to remove Thornton Township High School District 205 Board President Kenneth Williams from office. Williams was convicted of felony forgery in Indiana in 1985.

“We hope for a resolution at the next hearing on June 19,” Daly said.

Normally, felons get weeded out in an election challenge, Odelson said. He pointed to former Chicago Ald. Ambrosio Medrano, who went to federal prison on a felony corruption conviction.

Medrano tried to win back his 25th Ward seat after he was released from prison, but he was thrown off the ballot and the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the decision. He’s now awaiting trial on new corruption charges.

Odelson said there’s good reason to keep felons off school boards, in particular.

“This is an elementary school board,” he said of Ford Heights Public School District 169. “These are the leaders you want your superintendent and students to follow?”

Sherman filed a clemency petition with the governor of Illinois to have his felony convictions pardoned, court records show.

But his request was rejected in 2011, according to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Sherman, 47, was convicted of battery in 1996 and a gun charge was dropped. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to retail theft and was sentenced to probation. He stole alcohol and cigarettes from a Jewel-Osco, court records show.

Mitchell, 40, was nabbed in 2003 in a Chicago Police Department sting after he took delivery of a package containing more than 7 kilograms of marijuana worth more than $44,000, records show. He was sentenced to probation.

Coleman, 35, was arrested for illegal possession of a firearm in 1999. He told officials he kept the .357-caliber revolver in the trunk of his car for protection and never took it out or showed it to anyone, according to court records. He was sentenced to probation. In an interview with probation officials, Coleman said he attended high school for four years, plus summer school, but did not meet graduation requirements.

Sherman, Mitchell and Coleman didn’t return calls seeking comment. Neither did an attorney for Ford Heights Public School District 169.

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