What had to be one of the most-delayed and drawn-out misdemeanor cases in Cook County Circuit Court history finally came to an end Dec. 4 after a three-hour bench trial, as Riverside resident and former Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica was convicted of criminal damage to property at the Bridgeview courthouse.
Cook County Judge Kerry Kennedy found Peraica guilty of damaging a campaign sign of his opponent, Jeffrey Tobolski, in front of a McCook restaurant just three days before the Nov. 2, 2010 election.
Peraica, then the incumbent, was running against Tobolski, who is also the mayor of McCook, to be Cook County commissioner for the 16th District. Tobolski ended up winning the election against Peraica and an independent candidate.
Peraica, who did not testify in his own defense, was immediately sentenced to four months of court supervision with no fine or jail time. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 30 to 120 hours of community service, but Kennedy said that he didn’t think community service was warranted in the case.
“This is not a happy day for anybody,” said Kennedy in announcing the verdict after about 15 minutes of deliberation. “You hate to see a public official in this situation.”
Kennedy called it “a pretty minor offense” and noted that elections bring out strong emotions and unusual behavior.
“It wasn’t the smartest thing in the world, but undoubtedly in the heat of an election people do things they wouldn’t do on other days,” Kennedy said. “People get a little goofy.”
This was no ordinary misdemeanor case. The key witness in the case, the only eye witness, flew in from Slovakia to testify against Peraica. Robert Baloga testified that around 11 p.m. on Oct. 30, 2010, he heard some loud noises in the parking lot outside his apartment above the McCook Bohemian-American Family Restaurant at 8300 Joliet Road. Baloga testified that he looked out his bedroom window to see what was happening.
“I see a guy with a pole in his hand destroying a sign,” Baloga testified.
Baloga testified that he saw Peraica whack away at the sign and then throw a pole into the back of a white van, get in the passenger door and leave the restaurant parking lot. Baloga testified that he called his landlord, Louis Skorvanek, the owner of the restaurant, to tell him what he saw.
A few minutes later the van in which Peraica was riding in was stopped by a McCook police officer for failure to use a turn signal just a block and a half from the restaurant. The officer testified that he asked the driver for permission to look in the back of the van and saw a rake among a bunch of Peraica campaign signs.
Baloga was driven to the where the van had been stopped and identified Peraica as the person who had damaged the Tobolski campaign sign on the restaurant property. Baloga testified he has been living in Slovakia, and that Skorvanek had paid for his plane ticket to come testify at the trial.
Outside the courtroom, Tobolski said that he did not and would not reimburse Skorvanek for the cost of Baloga’s airplane ticket. Baloga testified that he plans to pay back Skorvanek for the ticket.
Peraica’s lawyer, Patrick Campanelli suggested that Baloga didn’t have a good look at whoever was whacking away at the campaign sign. Baloga testified that the man attacking the sign was wearing a baseball cap and a gray hoodie. The police officer testified that Peraica was wearing a baseball cap and a gray fleece jacket when he was stopped and arrested.
The defense called no witnesses and argued that the Baloga was too far away to see who it was that was attacking the sign. In his closing argument, Campanelli argued that the case was politically motivated and suggested that Baloga testified just to get a free trip to the United States. Campanelli said that evidence against Peraica was fabricated.
In her closing argument, prosecutor Marlee Nava rejected Campanelli’s charge that the prosecution of Peraica was politically motivated.
“There’s no conspiracy,” Nava said. “The only motivation here was the defendant’s motivation to destroy his opponent’s signs.”
Peraica, an attorney, was subdued and quiet in the courtroom. Before sentencing, Kennedy asked Peraica if he wanted to say anything, and Peraica said no.
But outside the courtroom Peraica had a lot to say. He said that he was surprised the judge found him guilty.
“I am shocked,” Peraica said. “This was not a prosecution; this was a persecution for two years. They brought a witness from Slovakia to lie under oath.”
Peraica said that a fraud had been committed on the court. He also criticized the Cook County State’s Attorney Office for bringing the case to trial.
“This was a gross abuse of prosecutorial discretion,” said Peraica, who lost a 2008 race for Cook County State’s Attorney to Anita Alvarez. “Unfortunately that’s the way it is too often with the state’s attorney in this county.
Peraica said that Baloga was not there that night.
“Robert Baloga was not on the scene that night,” Peraica said. “It was his roommate.”
After the trial Peraica said that he never damaged any Tobolski signs.
Asked why he didn’t testify, Peraica said, “I thought it would be a waste of time.”
Tobolski, who testified briefly and stayed for the entire trial, said that he was happy that the case was finally over and that the integrity of the McCook Police Department had been vindicated.
“I would just hope that this is the end of this,” Tobolski said. “I hope he moves on.”
Shortly after his arrest, Peraica filed a $2 million lawsuit against the McCook Police Department in U.S. District Court, alleging that they had violated his civil rights. That case has yet to go to trial.
Tobolski said Peraica’s comments did not surprise him.
“This is exactly why he lost the election,” Tobolski said. “He is his own worst enemy. He does not play well with others in any way, shape or form.”