Ackerman probed for political sign theft

Sharon Woods Harris

Tazewell County Board member John Ackerman is once again under investigation for questionable activity.

Ackerman, 31, of Washington, was questioned by Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department investigators, and allegedly admitted to taking several political signs belonging to then-Tazewell County treasurer candidate Mary Burress, who went on to win the primary.

During investigators’ questioning, Ackerman changed his story on several occasions while trying to explain his actions.

According to Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department reports, on Jan. 30 Robert Burress, the husband of Mary Burress, was placing political signs for his wife’s campaign in the area of Lake Windermere near Tremont. He placed two signs in a field with many other political signs. When he drove past the location 10 to 15 minutes later, the signs were gone.

Burress told officers that he drove to a nearby American Legion, where an event for veterans was under way. While speaking with people attending the event, Burress was told no one from the legion would remove the signs. One of the legion members pointed at a man crossing the parking lot and suggested he could be involved. Burress turned and saw Ackerman, the report said.

Burress then confronted Ackerman, according to the report, saying, “You took my signs.” Burress said Ackerman acknowledged that he took the signs, saying that Burress did not have permission to place the signs there. Burress said, “How do you know?” Ackerman said he didn’t know, but that he had to protect the property of his friend, the landowner. Burress asked from what and Ackerman replied, “I don’t know,” the report said.

Burress demanded the signs back, and Ackerman walked to his car trunk and handed Burris three “Mary Burress” signs, the report said.

On Feb. 11, a Tazewell County sheriff’s detective and a Tazewell County state’s attorney investigator questioned and videotaped Ackerman’s interview. Ackerman was informed at the beginning of the interview that he was being questioned about the removal of political signs in the Lake Windermere area near the Tremont American Legion. Ackerman agreed to the interview and the videotaping of it.

In a phone interview Thursday with the Pekin Daily Times, Ackerman said he was never under investigation, and that the interview was in regards to the improper placement of political signs.

“The investigation showed that I did place my signs in the proper place, and the other person was not placing his signs in the right place,” said Ackerman. “I was never the subject of any investigation.”

When told that the information and reports concerning the alleged thefts were in the hands of the media, Ackerman said, “That’s not true! There was no investigation. There are no charges.”

Tazewell County State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz could not be reached for comment regarding any results of the investigation.

Tazewell County Sheriff Robert Huston said he became aware of the situation a few days after the incident. He asked Umholtz if another agency should perform the investigation, since it involved a county board member. Huston said Umholtz told him to have his detectives conduct the investigation.

Before the police interview started, Ackerman said, “So the purpose of this interview is for Lake Windermere, correct?” The detective told Ackerman that there had been other allegations that they would like to discuss.

“I should be totally honest with you two,” Ackerman told investigators. “I have discussed the case with a couple of attorneys.

“If it goes much further past the one property, I ask that we take a leave so I could contact the attorneys and have them come in. There are others I would like to seek their advice on.”

Ackerman told investigators that his attorneys advised him not to speak with investigators about any of the signs, but Ackerman said the interview would be pretty easy and could be explained, the report said.

Ackerman said in the interview that he has what he called “verbal contracts” with the property owners where he placed his signs, giving him permission to place the signs and keep the area free of debris.

The detective asked Ackerman if a specific property owner told him to remove any signs on his property that Ackerman had not placed there. Ackerman told the officer that the property owner had not, but he said he did tell the man that “If it is alright with you, I’ll just maintain it — I’ll take out any signs that aren’t supposed to be there.” He also told the man he would remove all of the political signs in the spring.

Investigators confronted Ackerman with the results of an interview with the property owner in question. The man told investigators that he had never told Ackerman he could remove other candidates’ signs.

In Thursday’s telephone interview with the Daily Times, Ackerman said the signs he removed from the property were not placed with the owner’s permission. He said the property owner must have forgotten all of the details of their conversation.

When asked how he knew which signs to remove, he said he did not have a list from the owner.

Ackerman is a supporter of one candidate for governor. When asked if he had removed any of those campaign signs, he said no: “They were left up on purpose.”

Ackerman said in the interview that he had removed other candidates’ signs, but could not remember which ones. Ackerman was installing signs for Russ Crawford, Burress’ competitor in the primary.

Detectives asked Ackerman if he called property owners to see if others had permission to place signs on property before removing signs. He said he did sometimes, but said he did not call in reference to Burress’ signs and that she may have had permission.

Ackerman told detectives he does not remember how many signs he removed. He said some were returned to candidates, and others were thrown in the garbage.

Ackerman said Thursday that it is important that people understand how important it is to remove signs because they can damage farm machinery.