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Thrift shop caught in political crossfire

Joe Schmitt Waukegan president founder Former Inmates Striving Together outside FIST Thrift store located 680 S. Genesee Street Waukegan. Schmitt

Joe Schmitt of Waukegan president and founder of Former Inmates Striving Together outside the FIST Thrift store located at 680 S. Genesee Street in Waukegan. Schmitt is a candidate for Lake County Board District 9 and a Marine veteran serving in Viet Nam. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 14, 2012 3:08PM

A candidate running to represent the Lake County Board’s 9th District in Waukegan and North Chicago is under fire for operating a local thrift shop staffed by people with criminal records, including one who was convicted of a sex offense six years ago.

Joe Schmitt, founder of FIST, Former Inmates Striving Together, is defending the group’s shop, FIST Thrift, at 680 S. Genesee St., which was the subject of an email sent Friday from Waukegan activist Margaret Carrasco, who is accusing Schmitt of endangering children.

Carrasco, who supports incumbent District 9 Commissioner Mary Ross Cunningham, said the shop poses a threat to children who attend two nearby churches and a Boys and Girls Club — and to the ones who live in one of three apartments upstairs in the thrift shop building.

“I really think it’s not in the best interest of the community to have sex offenders working there,” said Carrasco, who also accused Schmitt of operating with a lack of oversight and “importing” parolees from Chicago. A former school board member, Carrasco has her own legal headaches. The Illinois Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit last year accusing her of fraudulently posing as a licensed attorney and cheating immigrants out of upfront payments in deportation cases. The case is still in court.

Schmitt, 60, a decorated former U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam and served time on felony drug convictions, is running as a Republican. Carrasco’s attack is political, he said.

“There is no impropriety,” Schmitt said. “The man in question is not in contact with children. He is in complete compliance with all registry laws. While we certainly don’t condone their crime, sex offenders have the right to re-enter society so long as they are trying to rehabilitate themselves and follow the parameters of the registry requirement.”

Schmitt said the man in question lives with his pastor’s mother in Zion. Former inmates live in two of the building’s three apartments, but none of them have been convicted of sex offenses, according to Schmitt. While state law precludes sex offenders from living within 500-feet of a licensed day care, school, or park, it does not stipulate that they may not work near such places.

Members of FIST have taken on numerous community projects, including beach maintenance, picking up trash throughout the city and county, and mowing the yards of abandoned homes. They sponsored an entrepreneurship course, free to former inmates, and last summer offered a concert series at Waukegan beach

Carrasco, who wants Waukegan residents to receive “child predator alerts,” said “federal standards” require a special use permit “for providers of criminal justice parolee release re-entry.”

But John Fallon, a Waukegan resident who works for the Chicago-based Corporation for Supportive Housing and volunteers for NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said no such standards exist.

Fallon, who happens to be Carrasco’s neighbor, called her flyer “a whole lot of malarkey.”

“I know Joe and I know FIST,” Fallon said. “ I’ve worked alongside the members as they’ve worked in the community and represented the community. I’d be happy to have Joe or any other of his residents living next door to me.”

Waukegan Police Cmdr. Gabe Guzman said the department had no problems, “to my knowledge” with FIST Thrift.

The Boys and Girls Club did not return a call seeking comment. Walstone Francis, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, 800 S. Genesee St., sounded a cautious note.

“We always do background checks on people who work with our children and youth,” he said. “We want to make sure we aren’t putting children at risk.”

Carrasco plans to argue the issue at Monday’s meeting of the Waukegan City Council.

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