CROWN POINT | A Lake County police official is challenging Sheriff John Buncich's authority to banish two veteran police officers from active duty but keep them on the public payroll.
"It's all political in my opinion," Robert Malizzo said. He is one of five members of the county police merit board that oversees personnel issues of about 130 sworn county police officers.
Malizzo is calling on the sheriff to reinstate Capt. Marco Kuyachich and Lt. Robert Reilly or bring evidence of wrongdoing against them. They have remained stripped of police powers but with full salary and benefits for more than 13 months.
The sheriff told Times columnist Mark Kiesling in late June he deplores the cost of the keeping the two laid off.
But Buncich refuses to get into a public debate with Malizzo over the matter or return the two to any kind of police duty while a federal investigation of alleged gun-running that took place under Buncich's predecessor, Roy Dominguez, remains unresolved.
Last week, Buncich would say only that "this matter involves a law enforcement investigation being conducted by federal officials. All questions on this matter should be directed to the office of the U.S. Attorney."
Mary Hatton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office, said it was her office's policy not to comment on the future course of investigations.
Buncich said, "The two employees remain on administrative leave and relieved from police duties with pay. That action is authorized by the sheriff's merit board."
Rivalry fuels intrigue
Malizzo and Buncich, who once worked side by side as fellow county police officers decades ago, have been at odds in recent months. Buncich persuaded county executives to cancel a lucrative contract Malizzo once held to provide medical services to county jail inmates. Malizzo is suing Buncich for defamation.
"The sheriff has no authority to put anybody on administrative leave for more than 90 days. Right now we are giving those people a vacation," Malizzo said.
Justin Murphy, the attorney for the merit board, said Malizzo isn't trained in the law and has misread the rule. Murphy said the sheriff is entitled to suspend the two indefinitely. Murphy said he offered to rewrite the rules to back up Malizzo's reading of it if the rest of the merit board wants that change.
Malizzo said he had been told otherwise by other attorneys but cannot impress Murphy, whom he said was appointed by the sheriff and speaks for the sheriff.
Malizzo said he has been unable to persuade his other four merit board members to push the sheriff in the Kuyachich/Reilly matter either because they were appointed either by Buncich or Buncich's allies in the Fraternal Order of Police or the local police union.
Buncich stripped six officers of police powers in May 2011.
Former officers Joseph Kumstar, Edward Kabella and Ronald Slusser resigned last fall following their indictments and guilty pleas to weapons and tax violations. They still await sentencing. Buncich reinstated Officer Scott Shelhart to active duty shortly afterward.
Kuyachich and Reilly, high-ranking officers under Dominguez, have remained at home collecting more than $162,000.
Lawyers for the two men recently declined to comment but Malizzo insists, "Marco and Reilly probably aren't going to be charged. It's been a year. They would have done something by now, you would think. So why did they bring Shelhart back and not the other two?"
Malizzo insists their real crime was to have been associated with former Sheriff Dominguez. Buncich and Dominguez have clashed in previous elections for sheriff with Buncich winning in 1992 and Dominguez in 2006.
"Marco didn't support Buncich (in 2010). Marco ran for sheriff against him. Buncich is going after anyone associated with Dominguez. Unfortunately, the taxpayers are paying the tab," Malizzo said.