County highway investigation continues, former worker speaks out

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A former Rock Island County highway worker says he believes a criminal investigation underway may find problems with some current policies, but says nothing illegal is going on.

"It's past practice, Chris," said Earl Higgins of Milan, a 32-year veteran of the highway department, now retired.

"And because of all this crap going down, a man took his life over accusations, and maybe anonymous calls. If they'd have kept the investigation in-house, and found out what was going on, we could have solved this problem, and somebody might be alive today," Higgins said.

Longtime highway worker Steve Dixon took his own life on April 5th, one day after being questioned by a Sheriff's investigator about practices at the department. He was not singled out, but one of many workers interviewed during the course of the investigation.

"Great guy, great guy. Everybody likes him. He was a solid person, solid," said Higgins about his former co-worker. "He went to the foreman and talked to the foreman. The foreman knew he didn't take anything, and he knew he didn't take anything," said Higgins.

One highway worker who declined to be identified says the crew is being interviewed about using county equipment and tools for personal projects, use of the county gas pump, and the practice of hauling dirt and other materials from county job sites to homes and farms in county trucks.

"It's been a past practice with all the foremen. We give dirt away, old guard rail, we help farmers out, we help civilians out.  We go to management and they say okay or not okay," Higgins said.

Higgins said using county-owned tools on personal time has been allowed for many years, as long as a supervisor authorized it.

"You could use drills, a pruner, chain saws, shovels, a tool that a guy doesn't have at home, with a supervisor's permission. They would let you bring them home, but you'd be responsible for them if you broke them," he said.

Higgins says there may be areas that need to be tightened up, but says he doesn't believe there's anything criminal going on and says he believes the probe could have been handled by county officials, and not the police.

"It could have been handled in-house. Get a hold of the union reps, the highway committee chairman, management, have a sit-down. If there's a thief in there, then take it to the Sheriff's department. You should at least have your rank and file people represented by their union reps. No attorney present, no Miranda rights. I don't understand it," Higgins said. "Why would you have a guy lose his life over anonymous, false accusations?"

Sheriff Jeff Boyd says he was asked to investigate the highway department by someone in county administration, and will only say the complaint involved "all the resources" of the highway department. He said he hopes to have the case turned over to States Attorney John McGehee for review by the end of the week.