Nearly two years ago, Highwood Deputy Fire Chief Ronald Pieri — the highest ranking fire official at the time — was indicted on criminal charges of theft and misconduct.
Placed on paid administrative leave by the city, he collected his $66,000 yearly salary without responding to a single fire emergency, although he was, technically, on call.
Before the criminal charges and paid leave, Pieri received roughly $50,000 in compensation for hours he didn't work, according to a complaint Highwood City Manager Scott Hartman filed with the Highwood Police and Fire Commission last month.
The commission voted 2-1 on Oct. 8 to suspend Pieri's pay pending a hearing. It's scheduled to meet Oct. 28 on motions of discovery in advance of a hearing on Pieri's alleged misconduct.
Running parallel to the Highwood commission's probe are the criminal charges of theft and misconduct prosecuted by the Lake County State's Attorney's Office. Pieri is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Oct. 29.
"It's taken way longer than expected," said Alderman Eric Falberg, who was on the City Council when Pieri was indicted. "It's ridiculous and it's sad. It has been a hardship on the family, but it's also been a hardship on the city."
The slow turning wheels of justice prompted Highwood officials to launch their own investigation, which will culminate with the Police and Fire Commission hearing. The exact cost of that is not yet clear, but thousands of dollars of legal fees are being spent.
Ronald Pieri has declined comment. But his friends and family say there's been a toll on him, too.
"My husband has been beaten to the ground. He's so stressed out. He's ground his teeth down," said Kathy Murphy-Pieri, Ronald Pieri's wife and a former Highwood alderman. "He's getting gray. He doesn't sleep. … It's been two long years and it didn't have to be."
Murphy-Pieri calls the charges against her husband political. In the years leading up to her husband's indictment, Murphy-Pieri said she made political enemies by pointing out errors in how the fire battalion chiefs were compensated and demanding a payroll audit.
When Ronald Pieri was appointed to the position of deputy fire chief, he was asked to work shifts in addition to his administrative duties, she said, creating problems in how he was compensated.
Asked if the case against Pieri were spurred by politics, Hartman did not mince words.
"It can't be further from the truth," he said. "Politics and personalities have nothing to do with the matter at hand."
Hartman was new on the job when the indictment came down. The city initially put Pieri on paid administrative leave to maintain a "presumption of innocence," Hartman said.
At the time, Highwood officials also decided to let the Lake County state's attorney's office prosecute the case without an independent city investigation.
"The city recognized, given the nature of the internal investigation, it would take a significant amount of time and expenses," Hartman said.
But as the process dragged on, Hartman launched an internal investigation without a City Council vote.
"As city manager, it fell on my shoulders," Hartman said.
With Pieri's hearing before the commission still pending, Hartman declined to specify what the investigation entailed or what new information it uncovered. But that probe led the complaint he filed with police and fire commission.
At the recent commission meeting, Jolanta Zinevich, Hartman's attorney, argued that it was "absurd" and unjustifiable" for the city to continue paying Pieri while he's under charges.