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Leaked emails show agency head targeted critics

Deaf director on paid leave

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) -- A state agency director is on paid administrative leave pending investigation as deaf advocates allege he intimidated, harassed and sought to silence them in menacing emails and video messages. 

John Miller, the Executive Director of the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, was suspended with pay in July. Governor Rauner's office says they are investigating the matter after it was originally referred to the Office of the Executive Inspector General. 

New emails provided to WCIA show how far Miller went to retaliate against his critics.

"I notice she is using her work time...and resources," Miller complained to Cathy Contarino in an email dated June 19th, questioning if Contarino gave her employee "permission" or "authority" to criticize him in his role as a government official. Miller sent the email from his government email account. 

Contarino is the executive director of IMPACT Center for Independent Living, a facility that collected more than $798,000 in state payments in 2016 and continues doing significant business as a vendor with the state. One of Contarino's employees volunteers as an advocate for the deaf, and signed her name onto the community letter which cited "issues with the IDDHC."

"The Deaf community has long been numb to the consistent subtle oppressive behaviors we are subjected to on a daily basis," the letter reads. "Not anymore."

In all, 124 members of the deaf community signed onto the letter. Some of them worked for facilities that contract with the state to provide care for Illinois' deaf and hard of hearing. 

Contarino responded to Miller, "I spoke with [redacted]." She assures the director, "IMPACT has not taken a position against IDHHC." She wrote, "We have a long history of working collaboratively with you and the IDHHC and would like to continue to do so."

In a prompt reply, Miller thanked Contarino for addressing the staff member, but again reiterated "I hope that [she] did not use her work time at IMPACT [to] make those comments. We will continue to work with you and support your center."

As the director of the commission, Miller is Illinois' lead liaison for scores of deaf facilities around the state. It's unclear how much clout Miller holds in steering state contracts to or away from deaf and hard of hearing facilities, but members of the Illinois Association of the Deaf saw Miller's response as an implicit threat that their business relationship was contingent on their silence.

Miller left voice and video mail messages with other deaf advocates, including one elderly woman's boss, asking to speak about her political involvement and activism with the Illinois Association of the Deaf. 

In a cease and desist letter to Miller and IDHHC legal counsel Tonia Bogener, attorney Andres Gallegos calls Miller's conduct "outrageous" and demands that it "stop immediately." 

Gallegos writes, "The IAD and its members are guaranteed freedom of speech under the U.S. and Illinois Constitution," adding "that constitutional right cannot be interfered with, suppressed or punished because of its content, particularly by a state agency executive." 

The State Journal-Register first reported Miller's administrative leave. 

Hired in 2004, Miller earns an annual salary of $81,528. Although he was placed on leave in July, state records show he was still being paid as recently as September 26th. 

Hud Englehart, a communications and crisis management strategist recently hired by Governor Rauner, replied in a statement, "The Governor's Office takes complaints very seriously. We do not comment on them. However, we are conducting a full investigation and will wait until the investigation is complete before making any conclusions."

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