Illinois News

Keller no longer handling coroner duties, under investigation by appellate prosecutor's office

Jim Keller
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 27, 2018 4:30 pm Updated: Jul. 6, 2018 7:16 pm

QUINCY — Adams County Coroner Jim Keller's resignation won't take effect until next month, but he was locked out of all county systems and buildings Saturday.

Adams County Board Chairman Les Post confirmed that Keller will handle no duties of the coroner's office through July 10, when his resignation, submitted last week, takes effect.

This comes as The Herald-Whig confirmed that Keller is being investigated by the Illinois Office of the State's Attorney Appellate Prosecutor, though the nature of the investigation is unclear.

Adams County State's Attorney Gary Farha said the Illinois State Police took “action” Friday evening that made the county lock out Keller, but gave no details.

After returning from closed session, the County Board voted unanimously Wednesday to accept Keller's resignation during a special board meeting.
Post said most of the work of the coroner's office has been handled by Deputy Coroner Ben Hamilton, along with Deputy Coroner Greg Myer, since the action against Keller.

Post said he also appointed John Myers as an interim deputy coroner Monday afternoon to help ease the workload of the part-time employees. Myers had been a deputy coroner in the office.

The Herald-Whig had sought text messages from Keller's county-issued cellphone and emails from his county account through a Freedom of Information Act request.

However, Farha said in his response to the request that his office cannot determine whether the information can be released.

“With respect to James Keller, a special prosecutor has been appointed,” Farha wrote. “In order to determine the answer to your (FOIA) request, I would suggest you contact the Illinois appellate prosecutors office with this request.”

Farha said he requested the special prosecutor last week.

“On (June 19), we were notified of a citizen's complaint against Mr. Keller that was turned over for investigation that immediately alerted us that a special prosecutor was needed,” he said.

Matt Goetten, an attorney with the Office of the State's Attorney Appellate Prosecutor, said through a representative that there only is an investigation, and that no charges have been filed. Goetten is a member of the office's Special Prosecution Unit.

Post said a special meeting wouldn't normally be called to accept a resignation because most resignations of county officials are announced at regular County Board meetings, allowing board members to accept them then. He said a public hearing regarding a confinement hog operation later Wednesday evening made it possible to hold a special meeting. He said the meeting was not called in response to the special prosecutor's investigation.

“When a county official resigns, we have 60 days to fill the position, so we have time for the parties to make their nomination,” Post said. “It's kind of a formality. We're going to go ahead and accept it tonight, and then the Republican Party will be able to move forward and give us someone to appoint.”

Keller and Adams County faced scrutiny in recent weeks over the county's indigent death policy where the county assumed possession of a person's remains and the cost of cremation, and loved ones had to pay $1,000 before the ashes were returned.

At its June 12 meeting, the County Board approved a new policy that has immediate survivors of Adams County residents declared indigent after their deaths sign an affidavit of indigence and makes it clear that the county will not withhold death certificates in indigent cases.

Post said he is not aware of any future litigation issues the county might face because of Keller. Keller was named in a lawsuit filed last year by Curtis Lovelace and his family after Lovelace was acquitted of first-degree murder by a Sangamon County jury in 2017 in connection with the 2006 death of his first wife, Cory Lovelace.

The Adams County Sheriff's Department also had been investigating a reported battery involving Keller.

Keller said after the May 15 County Board meeting that he was driving his office's van on the night of May 10 when someone threw a rock through his open window, striking him in the head.

Keller sent a call out over the radio and sought treatment. He later said he suffered a concussion and required three stitches in his head.

Adams County Sheriff Brian VonderHaar said at the time that his department was investigating the incident, but he didn't speculate whether the reported incident had anything to do with the county's indigent death policy.

Keller, 57, was appointed coroner in 2011, taking over for Gary Hamilton, who retired. Keller ran unopposed for a full term in 2012 and again in 2016. He had been a deputy coroner since 1988.

As coroner, Keller's salary was $50,024 a year. He oversaw five employees, including his wife, Pamela Keller, who was chief deputy coroner, according to the Adams County clerk's office. The other employees were deputy coroners.

Post said he was made aware that Pamela Keller was working in the coroner's office only recently — a situation he noted was “definitely not ideal.”

“(Elected officials) get to run the office the way they want,” he said. “If it was an appointed position, it would be totally different. As long as the money is budgeted, (elected officials) are free to hire basically whoever they want.”

Post said the county is trying to improve hiring processes. The county hired Sue Hester as an executive assistant to assist with human resources duties, which had been handled by each department head, as well as finance duties.

Keller's term was scheduled to end in 2020, so his resignation will prompt a special election in November.

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