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Sheahan says he won't attend hearing on beatings

Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County commissioners plan to hold a public hearing this morning about a grand jury report that accuses Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan and his top aides of "covering up" an investigation into a mass beating of 49 Cook County Jail detainees by elite guards in 1999.

But Sheahan warned commissioners Tuesday that he would not attend. He told them he "strongly object[s]" to them going forward with the hearing while he fights a legal battle against what he calls the "flawed" and "misleading" report.

Last month, Sheahan filed a lawsuit asking a judge to expunge the report, which accuses the sheriff's Special Operations Response Team of "gross if not criminal misconduct" in the 1999 clash.

Sheahan said the panel's chief investigator, retired Judge Thomas Hett, was biased in the way he handled the investigation.

Hett withheld information from the jury, socialized with the jury's foreman and his wife, hired a consulting firm owned by his son and sought advice from law firms that represented people who were suing the sheriff's office, Sheahan said.

One of those law firms, Jenner & Block, represented two former deputies in a lawsuit against the sheriff. Sheahan accused Jenner & Block of a conflict of interest. On Jan. 20, the firm wrote Sheahan's attorneys it was withdrawing from the deputies' lawsuit against the sheriff.

Jenner & Block denied having a conflict, but added that "we have no desire to have the issues raised [by Sheahan] complicate the resolution of the merits of this case."

Sheahan would be questioned

Shortly after Hett released the grand jury report in September, County Board member Roberto Maldonado announced plans to hold a meeting of his law enforcement committee to question Sheahan about it.

Sheahan asked Maldonado to delay the hearings until he gave his deposition in a lawsuit brought by detainees who said they were beaten in the clash. Maldonado obliged.

But then Maldonado learned in newspaper accounts that Sheahan filed his own lawsuit seeking to have the report thrown out.

"Obviously, if you are successful in expunging the report, that would preclude this committee from holding a hearing ... a great disservice to the democratic structure of our County Board committee system and ultimately to the citizens of Cook County," Maldonado wrote back to Sheahan on Tuesday.

County Board members need answers about the report's recommendations "to improve the overall condition and operation of Cook County Jail," Maldonado said.

But Sheahan said that anything County Board members or he says today could be used by prisoners in their civil suits against the county. So he will send Undersheriff Zelda Whittler to speak in his absence.

Closed session is sought

Some board members this morning plan to ask to hold the "public" hearing in a closed executive session so nothing they say can be used against them in lawsuits.

Sheahan argued against a closed-door meeting. "I find [a closed-door session] completely inappropriate given the fact that this report was a public document paid for by Cook County taxpayers," he wrote.

Commissioners voted to settle the 1999 beating case for $362,000, but decided to go to trial on a suit brought by another group of inmates who say they were beaten in 1998. Hett's report cleared Sheahan's office in that beating.

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