(MCT) — CHICAGO — Seven years ago, a small-town Illinois police chief launched a big dream to nab criminals and thwart terrorists from the air.
Chief Timothy Swanson began a police helicopter program that initially drew raves.
He secured six-figure federal grants. Nearly 100 suburbs chipped in with money. He won a national award and became president of the statewide police chiefs group.
But along the way, Swanson didn’t disclose that he was running the program with a convicted felon. Or that they had expanded into side businesses to which Swanson helped steer more government money.
Now his helicopters have been taken away and Swanson is the subject of criminal investigations, records show.
Authorities have not spelled out what specifically led to the program’s fall. What is known is that officials in suburban Countryside, where he launched the helicopter effort, raised questions about possible misspending and insider deals.
And in Kankakee County, where he moved the program in 2009, questions arose about how he used and maintained millions of dollars worth of helicopters and gear that taxpayers had lent him.
A Chicago Tribune investigation also found that Swanson raised cash — much of it taxpayer money — for years through a nonprofit that the state said wasn’t legally allowed to accept funds.
Swanson, who now works for the Kankakee County sheriff and is police chief of Momence, declined comment. His attorney, Lawrence Dirksen, noted in a letter obtained by the Tribune that Swanson is the subject of “various ongoing criminal investigations.” That led the longtime chief to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to provide evidence that could be used against him.
The silent treatment is a far cry from how Swanson passionately pitched his program in 2005 as key to keeping Chicagoland safe.
Back then, places such as Los Angeles were swarming with dedicated police helicopters. But metro Chicago had none.
Chicago police and state police had cut their pricey units years before. Only one department flew a helicopter, far north Winthrop Harbor, and it was on loan from a businessman.
Pushing to fill the void was Swanson — a tall, then-46-year-old chief with a deep voice and a helicopter pilot’s license.
He formed a nonprofit — Illinois Regional Air Support Service — and told the state it would become “a superstar in regards to meeting the currently unsupported needs of Illinois.”
The military lent him a 1960s-era surplus helicopter, which he equipped with a $170,000 federal grant. His nonprofit got area agencies to send money, usually $1,000 a town. He christened the program “Air 2” — a takeoff on the old state police Air 1.
Able to speed up to 115 mph, its rotors soon hovered above car chases and barricaded houses. And, outfitted with an infrared camera, it helped departments look for missing residents and fleeing criminals.
He was then lent a second military surplus helicopter and got a $295,000 federal grant for more equipment.
Some area chiefs saw a scrappy lawman tirelessly raising cash for an expensive program.
“The impression of chiefs was that he was almost fighting a windmill, that he was knocking himself out to get this done,” said longtime Orland Park Chief Tim McCarthy.
One thing not advertised: The Air 2 pilot often sent to help police had spent time on the other side of the law.
Court records on Swanson’s chief pilot, Kurt Kaiser, show:
In 1986, Kaiser was found guilty but mentally ill of felony criminal damage after police said he stole a helicopter from Midway Airport, flew it around his rural Will County home and abandoned it damaged at a nearby airport. When deputies came to his home, they found stolen construction equipment, leading him to also plead guilty to felony theft.
In 2002, federal prosecutors in a civil action accused Kaiser and his wife of defrauding a federal business loan program out of $715,000. The couple in 2003 agreed to pay a $371,000 fine.
Kaiser also declined comment. Records show he had just gotten approval for a private helipad in his backyard in rural Monee when Swanson began pitching Air 2 and the pair eventually stationed and fueled the helicopters there.
Swanson sponsored Kaiser for membership in the Airborne Law Enforcement Association. The association board’s president, St. Louis-area police pilot Kurt Frisz, told the Tribune anybody can join, but he was surprised that a chief sponsored a convicted felon, let alone put one in a cockpit.
Kaiser and his wife joined the board of Swanson’s nonprofit. Eventually the board was just the Kaisers, Swanson and Swanson’s wife.
Swanson and Kaiser also went into business together, launching several for-profit firms. One, Rotors and Wings Aviation, became a one-stop shop for fixing, commissioning and learning to fly helicopters and airplanes at the Kankakee airport.
A 2008 invoice shows Swanson directed more than $4,000 in federal grant money to Rotors and Wings for helicopter equipment and maintenance. That’s despite grant rules prohibiting cash going to firms with ties to recipients.
Also in 2008, a company owned by Kaiser got a $63,000 Countryside police contract to install security cameras in a park, records show. Kaiser’s company submitted its winning bid months after the other three quotes were received, despite city code requiring a sealed process. Deputy Chief Scott Novak, who gathered the quotes, told the Tribune that Swanson requested that Kaiser’s company be included. “I was directed by Chief Swanson to get that quote,” Novak said.
Countryside’s City Council approved the contract without question but began raising questions about other spending Swanson helped control.
The questions were fueled by a $10,000 helicopter grant check from the state to the Countryside Police Department. Records show Swanson’s nonprofit cashed the check and deposited the money in 2006.
The suburb’s finance director at the time, Alice Filinovich, questioned why and sought more accountability, records show, but Filinovich said aldermen fired her after complaints that she was meddling.
“They just felt that he could do no wrong,” said Filinovich, who now lives in Ohio.
Then-Alderman Wayne Straza, a retired Chicago police officer, said he also pushed for an explanation about the $10,000 check. Finally, in 2008, after auditors raised questions, Swanson’s nonprofit gave the city $5,000.
Swanson explained in a 2009 memo that the state really meant to reimburse his nonprofit with half of the $10,000 check. As for the other half, he said it was meant to reimburse the suburb’s drug-seizure fund. Keeping the extra $5,000 was an honest mistake, he said, blaming it in part on city officials not showing him bank statements.
“I was in the ‘hot seat’ so to speak — being ganged up on by the previous mayor, administrator and finance director,” he wrote.
The town’s attorney, Randy Vickery, said Countryside officials could not comment because of the pending investigation, but the city gave the Tribune hundreds of records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Four months after Swanson’s memo, he retired at age 50 and immediately took a $68,000-a-year job with the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Office as its chief of municipal policing.
With the state and federal government’s blessing, Swanson moved his helicopter program to Kankakee County, basing it out of the Rotors and Wings hangar.
But controversy soon arose over how he left Countryside.
A 2010 Tribune investigation showed how Countryside had given retiring officers a one-time $850 bonus that, through creative math, dramatically boosted retirement checks. In Swanson’s case, his one-time bonus boosted his annual pension by 20 percent, to nearly $85,000.
By 2010, records show, the mayor and aldermen were digging deeper into Swanson’s program, from his nonprofit’s tax records to Kaiser’s past and partnerships with Swanson to checks Swanson had written from the drug-seizure fund.
They asked one of their attorneys, Nick Cetwinski, to seek an outside police investigation.
Cetwinski was Countryside’s labor attorney and had advised that spiking officers’ pensions appeared legal. He also was a longtime friend of Swanson’s, doing legal work for the chief on the side and eventually for Swanson’s new department in Momence, records show.
By the middle of 2010, Countryside leaders began to question Cetwinski’s role in both issues. The suburb hired another law firm, Freeborn & Peters, which pushed an internal investigation that led to the city suing Cetwinski for malpractice in 2011.
The suburb alleged that Cetwinski should have known the pension spikes were illegal as well as caught “extensive wrongdoing” from Swanson that cost the town “significant” money.
Cetwinski’s attorneys countered in court filings that he gave the best advice he could and did all he was asked to do to investigate Swanson.
To try to prove its case against Cetwinski, the suburb subpoenaed records from the former chief, but his attorney refused to provide them, citing ongoing criminal investigations. “He (Swanson) will not participate in any legal proceedings and will continue to exercise his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination,” his attorney Dirksen wrote.
Dirksen wrote that letter in January. The same week, Kankakee County Sheriff Timothy Bukowski sent letters to area police departments asking for donations to Swanson’s nonprofit.
It’s unknown what the sheriff knew about the nonprofit or the investigation of Swanson. Bukowski has declined to answer questions and refused to provide the Tribune with records regarding his department’s involvement with the program.
Records show Swanson’s nonprofit hadn’t properly registered with the state attorney general’s office since 2006 and, therefore, had no legal right to accept or keep donations.
The sheriff’s letter also said that Swanson’s program wasn’t grounded. But the program has remained grounded since April 2011, according to the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which helps manage military surplus equipment used by police.
Records show inspectors grounded the program after finding it had not kept complete maintenance and flight records for years. The program logged few flights for its main helicopter the previous year. Its second helicopter had been used just for training, despite Swanson promising years earlier to use it on missions to scout for drugs and patrol for terrorists.
Officials provided only parts of their reports to the Tribune, saying other portions were too sensitive to release while the Defense Department continued investigating. But the military took back one helicopter last year and the other this month. Cook County and the state also took back equipment their grant money bought.
Swanson is still employed by the Kankakee County sheriff and remains president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. In that high-profile role, he chatted with the governor at a police equipment trade show in August in Tinley Park. Three weeks ago he flew to San Diego to represent Illinois at a national police chiefs conference.
He also attended last week’s council meeting in Momence, which contracts with the Sheriff’s Office for Swanson’s services.
Afterward, Swanson told a reporter he was “not interested” in answering questions about his program.
In its refusal to provide documents on Swanson’s program, the Sheriff’s Office said sharing the records could jeopardize a “possible pending criminal proceeding.”
But the sheriff has not stopped promoting Swanson’s program on his taxpayer-funded website.
Swanson remained listed as the program contact, and Kaiser as the chief pilot. Above their names, in bold letters, was a pitch to donate to their nonprofit.
(Tribune reporters Joseph Ryan and Bridget Doyle contributed to this report.)