Formerly disbarred attorney, recovering drug addict makes run for Robbins mayor
BY CASEY TONER email@example.com March 12, 2013 10:18PM
Derrick Reese is running for mayor of Robbins. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 14, 2013 6:03AM
Robbins attorney and mayoral candidate Derrick Reese declares on his website that he has “faced challenges that eventually led him to dedicate his life to Christ.”
According to documents from the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, those challenges included multiple DUIs, heavy alcohol and cocaine use and having his law license taken away from him for nine years in 2003.
Now, Reese, 53, is vying for the seat vacated by former Mayor Irene Brodie, who served as mayor for 24 years. He is running for the position in the April 9 election against village Clerk Pam Bradley and trustees Shantiel Simon and Tyrone Ward.
If elected, Reese said, he wants to do an audit of the city’s finances, beautify the village and “bring some professionalism to the office.”
It’s a position that demands a steady hand as Robbins, a town of about 5,300 people, is one of the Southland’s poorer communities, with more than 33 percent of its residents living under the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Cook County sheriff’s police also began assisting the community’s police department in January and discovered 51 untested rape kits dating back to 1986.
One month earlier, former Police Chief Johnny Holmes resigned after being charged with drunken driving for the second time in three years.
In an interview with the SouthtownStar, Reese urged voters to focus on the community leader he is now rather than on his complicated past.
“I have no shame or no guilt and the way I look at my past behavior is it’s the past; now I’m moving forward,” Reese said. “It isn’t anything like it was, bro. It’s a whole new story now.”
When Reese applied in 2011 to get his law license reinstated, he laid out the facts about his drug addiction.
According to his testimony with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission:
He started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana when he was 13. At 17, he joined the Army, serving three years of active duty. While in the military, his drinking and drug use escalated, and while marijuana was his drug of choice, he “experimented with speed, acid and cocaine.”
“I was like most kids: You start off with something to do,” Reese said. “It’s funny and you laugh, but you keep doing it over the years and it becomes a way of life and you get used to it.”
When he left the Army in 1979, his friends introduced him to freebasing cocaine and he became hooked.
He graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1984 with degrees in paralegal studies and political science. He later applied to several law schools, finally getting accepted into Thurgood Marshall Law School in Houston, which he attended in 1994.
He joined the Texas National Guard upon moving to Texas and planned to be a JAG officer but tested positive for cocaine in a routine urinalysis in 1996 and was discharged.
He graduated law school near the top of his class in 1996, moved back to Illinois and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1998. Reese began practicing criminal law, which he learned by reading and going to court. His legal practice started growing and was successful until he started drinking and using drugs again. Asked if he was aware of the effect of the drug use, Reese said he thought he was a “superachiever and could handle it.”
In February 2002, Reese said he was sued by Nuvell Financial Corp., an automobile finance company, because he was behind in his monthly car payments. In September 2002, he submitted a check for $6,000 to Nuvell, saying it came from the cousin of a former client he represented on a drug charge. Nuvell later contacted him within the month to say the check was counterfeit. Eventually, Nuvell repossessed Reese’s car and obtained a $39,000 judgment against him.
The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission suspended him from practicing law in February 2002 amid allegations that he neglected client matters, failed to return unearned money to a client and made misstatements to the commission. Reese moved to Georgia to “escape his embarrassment” and to join Stephanie Harris, the mother of four of his children and the woman he later married.
Now, Stephanie Reese is helping him run his mayoral campaign.
“That’s when I was really dealing with the hurt and pain of getting suspended,” Reese said about his experience in Georgia. “That was like an adjusting period where I was devastated by what happened.”
Reese didn’t practice law in Georgia but wrote three letters in which he identified himself as an attorney with “The Law Center” to companies, demanding hundred-thousand-dollar settlements on behalf of friends.
Reese said he was in a “lonely, hurt place,” when he wrote the letters, was probably high, and was “lashing out.” The State Bar of Georgia filed a complaint against him to cease engaging in the practice of law, and he signed a consent agreement to do so in February 2005.
Reese also testified he was charged twice with driving under the influence in 2004 while living in Georgia, leading to the suspension of his Georgia driver’s license and his later arrest for driving on a suspended license. He said he also pleaded guilty to a battery charge during that time and paid a fine of $400.
He moved back to Illinois in 2005, and the following year wrote a letter claiming he was with “The Law Center” to the state’s attorney’s board in Broward County, Fla., to negotiate a resolution for his nephew, who was facing theft charges. He said he believed the office would take the letter more seriously if it had come from an attorney.
Reese testified that his drinking increased in 2006, and he was drinking about a half gallon of vodka and “a couple 40 ounces of beer” per day and using cocaine.
“For awhile I was under the self-delusion that I can do all do this and function,” Reese said. “It wasn’t until I broke down that I realized I can’t.”
According to Reese’s testimony, he made his first efforts to get reinstated to the Illinois bar in November 2006, when he made payments to the commission totaling $2,240 for court hearings and other costs. He also filed for reinstatement to the Illinois bar in 2007 but withdrew the petition shortly thereafter.
Reese checked in to a drug rehabilitation program on April 30, 2007 and left it one day later, but began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings daily for 30 days, according to the testimony.
He also entered a 15-month outpatient program, which he completed.
Reese testified that the AA meetings helped him become “self-disciplined, compassionate and closer to his family.” He testified his sobriety “liberated him and helped him feel better about himself.”
While his drug issues had ended by that point, Reese’s legal issues had not, according to his testimony. His car was seized in 2008 because he was stopped while driving on a revoked license with an out-of-state driving charge, according to his testimony.
Reese testified that he also began teaching art and math at Thomas J. Kellar Middle School in Robbins.
In May 2010, he stopped working for the school and became a part-time director for the Robbins Community Help Agency, he testified. While he was there, he received a salary of $15,000 a year and maintained his unemployment benefits.
Reese filed for his reinstatement to the Illinois bar in July 2010 and told the commission he was repulsed by his previous actions and worked hard to get his life back.
Several friends and associates, including Holmes, testified on his behalf that he had changed.
John Brown, former Posen-Robbins School District 143½ board member and a longtime friend of Reese, said Reese had a “100 percent turnaround.”
After determining that Reese was sober, the commission granted his request in March 2012 under the stipulation that he should attend regular drug recovery meetings and pay a former client $1,500. Reese is currently practicing criminal law — building a practice defending DUI cases, according to his website.
“Times have changed, and so have I,” Reese said. “If you fall, you gotta get back up. If you don’t get back up, you’re done for.”
Stephanie Reese vouched for her husband’s recovery.
“My husband never quivered and shook and he stood strong,” she said. “There’s no question he had a hell he has bared.”