County board closes doors to talk about tobacco suit
The McHenry County Board will be briefed by its lawyer today about the multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed late last week against the tobacco industry - a move that angered several board members who did not know the suit was moving forward.
McHenry County is among 10 other plaintiffs suing for an unspecified amount of money, exceeding $3 million each, to recoup its health expenses caused by tobacco, said Kevin Conway, a private attorney hired by the county.
The only other government in the suit is Boone County. The rest of the plaintiffs are hospital districts located primarily downstate, Conway said.
"There's a lot more in damages (than $3 million)," Conway said. "We have not hired the experts and done all the digging on the damages part."
McHenry County already has a pending suit, arguing the state of Illinois' $9.1-billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998 does not apply to local governments, said Conway, who expects a judge to rule on that question in three or four months.
The lawsuit filed Thursday is intended to put the legal wheels in motion in anticipation of the judge's ruling in the county's favor, Conway said.
Several board members, however, have said they did not know or approve of the lawsuit being filed Thursday.
"I'm very upset," county board member Ersel Schuster said. "This is either total incompetence on the part of our leadership at the county, or it's back-room politics."
Conway, however, said he did notify some people at the county government before he filed the suit Thursday, but he declined to say exactly how many or who they were.
"Some people may know more than others - some maybe nothing at all," Conway said. "I think they had some knowledge."
County board chairman Michael Tryon is out of town and could not be reached for comment.
County Administrator Al Johnson referred questions to McHenry County State's Attorney Gary Pack, saying he has been handling the tobacco case.
Pack, however, said he was not notified by Conway before the lawsuit was filed Thursday.
Schuster, who is not in favor of suing tobacco companies, questioned whether the lawsuit is even valid without a vote by the board.
"I am of the opinion that we are not a party to any such lawsuit," Schuster said. "We, as a board, have not made any action to become a part of any such action."
A spokesman for the Illinois Attorney General's office declined to offer an opinion about the case, referring questions to Pack, who said the board already has given Conway the authority to sue.
"The board a while back approved the hiring of him, and they approved the lawsuit," Pack said.
"Was he hired to do it? Yes," Pack said. "He should've informed the county of this lawsuit, though. So, I think it's up to the board (today) to whether they want to be a part of it."
Conway is scheduled to speak with board members about the lawsuit today during a session closed to the public.
"If I have to apologize that (board members) should've been told something about it, I may owe one or more of those apologies," Conway said.
Even as Conway argues in court McHenry County should not be part of the state's $9.1-billion settlement with tobacco companies, thereby freeing it up to pursue its own lawsuit, Gov. George Ryan announced Monday the county's health department will be receiving $186,620 for tobacco prevention and control, its share of $10 million of that settlement.