The Cook County state’s attorney’s office is tasked with prosecuting those who break the law, but the agency’s own investigative unit is having a hard time following the rules.

The Better Government Association and FOX 32 have learned of several instances in which investigators in the unit, comprised of police officers who help prosecutors with court cases, were engaged in possible unethical or criminal conduct. In one instance, an investigator was allegedly visiting a casino when he should have been working. In another instance, an off-duty investigator crashed his vehicle through a DUI checkpoint while allegedly drunk. A third investigator was recently hit with child pornography charges.

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And those are just the latest revelations with the unit, known for years as a landing pad for retired cops and others with clout who want a steady income and a juicy pension – but not a lot of heavy lifting or supervision.

The BGA and FOX previously reported how investigator Robert Thomas spent hours upon hours at a Bridgeport cigar shop frequented by reputed mob figures when he should have been working cases – and how politically connected investigator Frank Cupello, whose duties included ferreting out voter fraud, was voting in Elmwood Park even though by many accounts he was living in Kildeer.

Yet another investigator, Mary Sarna, was arrested in Iowa on a drunken-driving charge in 2009 – while allegedly speeding nearly 30 mph over the limit and carrying her service weapon, records show.

State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez / Facebook

In the end, taxpayers and those counting on an efficient criminal justice system are those who stand to suffer from this behavior. State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez would not comment for this story, but her aides insisted things are getting better as they try to correct decades of bad habits in the 117-member investigative squad.

Alvarez’s office said via email, referring to the three latest instances of trouble: “We cannot and will not make excuses for stupid behavior or illegal activity by these individuals. It is inexcusable and will not be tolerated. As is the case in all of the examples you mention . . . the State’s Attorney’s Office took immediate action to hold these individuals and their supervisors accountable for this behavior.”

The BGA and FOX recently learned that:

  • State’s attorney investigator Robert Hurst, 67, resigned in January after being caught visiting a casino while allegedly on the clock for taxpayers and driving a government-issued vehicle, officials said.

Jack Garcia, chief of the state’s attorney squad, said the case has been referred to the Illinois attorney general’s office to see whether criminal charges are warranted.

“He was not where he was supposed to be, and that’s not acceptable to me,” Garcia said, adding that four supervisors were also disciplined for not better overseeing Hurst.

In an interview, Hurst denied doing anything wrong and said he simply retired from the job because he had hit the 10-year mark with the county and was therefore eligible for a county pension. Hurst, who was making $84,000 a year at the state’s attorney’s office, is a former Chicago cop already drawing a city pension of more than $70,000 a year, according to public records.

One of his jobs with Chicago police: Working internal affairs, rooting out cops not following the rules.

  • State’s attorney investigator Lawrence Maderak, 67, was arrested last summer in Chicago Ridge and charged with DUI after the pick-up truck he was driving barreled through a drunken-driving checkpoint manned by local police, records show.

Maderak, who was on medical leave from the state’s attorney’s office at the time of the incident, smelled of alcohol, “refused to submit to field sobriety testing” and asked arresting officers for preferential treatment, saying, “I’ve been a cop for 24 years. Give me a break,” according to a police report.

A former Bridgeview officer, Maderak has worked for the state’s attorney’s office since 1998. His current county salary is about $85,000 a year. He remains on leave and declined to comment about his case, which is being prosecuted by the attorney general because of Maderak’s connection to the state’s attorney’s office.

Asked whether Maderak would be allowed to still work for the agency with a DUI conviction, the state’s attorney’s office said via email: “We will have no further comment until his criminal case is adjudicated.”

  • State’s attorney investigator Terry Meagher, 45, was indicted by a federal grand jury on child pornography charges, according to federal records that indicated he “knowingly and intentionally employed and used a minor . . . to engage in sexually explicit conduct.”

Meagher, who has resigned from the state’s attorney’s office, was hired by the county in 1991 and until last year was assigned to a federal narcotics task force. Previously, he served on a federal immigration/customs task force. Over the last eight years he has racked up more than $130,000 in overtime, county records show.

It’s unclear whether any potentially criminal behavior by Meagher occurred while he was on duty; federal officials said they don’t anticipate his arrest fouling up cases he had worked.

Meagher’s attorney declined to comment.

Earlier in his career, Meagher was disciplined for losing his service weapon, Garcia confirmed.

The state’s attorney’s investigative unit has been known for years as a plumb – where people with clout went to draw an easy paycheck, according to those familiar with the squad.

Alvarez’s aides insist those days are over, saying they are making an effort to hire younger, aggressive apolitical people, and improve supervision. They brought in Garcia, a former State Police official, in 2012 to run things. But officials also said they’re sometimes hamstrung by a union contract in how and when they can discipline people.

Thomas, who was caught blowing off work to hang out at a cigar shop, resigned before he could be disciplined. He’s 68.

Cupello, 47, remains a supervisor in the unit, even after the BGA and FOX found him voting in Elmwood Park – where then-Mayor Peter Silvestri is a close associate. Cupello appears to reside in Lake County.

Because of an obvious conflict of interest, the state’s attorney turned the Cupello case over to Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office. But Madigan’s office has declined to press charges because, officials said, applicable case law is murky, and the evidence wasn’t cut and dried.

Madigan spokeswoman Natalie Bauer said clout was not a factor in the decision, adding, “We conducted a thorough investigation and the evidence didn’t . . . allow us to proceed with charges we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In the Maderak case, Madigan’s office has no plans to drop the DUI charge, Bauer said.

When Maderak barreled through the checkpoint in Chicago Ridge, he not only put the lives of cops on the ground at risk, he also destroyed the directional sign used to get vehicles into a lane so they can be observed by officers on the ground, according to records and interviews.

“I just know it was a dangerous situation . . . thank God nobody was hurt,” said Chicago Ridge Police Chief Robert Pyznarski.

In the Sarna case, the drunken-driving charge was later reduced to reckless driving, to which she pleaded guilty, records show.

Although that reduction in charges might seem strange – after all, Sarna refused to submit to a breath test, smelled of alcohol, admitted to drinking before getting behind the wheel, and failed field sobriety tests, according to police reports – the Polk County, Iowa, prosecutor who handled the case said reducing a DUI charge is fairly common and that Sarna, 41, was afforded no special treatment.

Sarna’s passenger in the vehicle was a suburban cop who, according to police reports, apparently tried to clout her out of the arrest by flashing his badge.

Despite all this, the state’s attorney’s office opted not to fire Sarna – who, as a relatively new hire, still was on probationary status – but to suspend her without pay, officials said. She ended up on a federal task force – effectively a promotion.

Garcia said he didn’t know why things were handled that way because he wasn’t with the agency at the time. Sarna could not be reached for comment. She still works for Alvarez’s investigative squad, making roughly $70,000 a year.

The state’s attorney’s office is planning for a new radio system for investigators – which should not only improve communication, and therefore officer safety, but also help supervisors better monitor locations of officers because the radios are tracked via satellite, Garcia said.

A significant part of the unit’s job is “trial support,” which means finding witnesses, serving subpoenas and, among other things, obtaining additional evidence to help prosecutors go to trial on criminal cases.

Ron Kelly ran the investigative squad under Alvarez’s predecessor Richard Devine and supervised some of the people who have been getting in trouble. Now retired, he said, “There’s 99 percent good people. Maybe one-half percent of people who just don’t want to do their job. What do you do, follow people around all day? You have to trust them to go and do their job.”

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp, and FOX 32’s Dane Placko. They can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9030.