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Murphy points finger at clout's role in fire

Wednesday, January 21, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
by ABDON M. PALLASCH

Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy tried to put Illinois' history of awarding government contracts to political donors on trial Tuesday, as he testified before a panel investigating the October fire at the Cook County Administration Building that killed six people.

Why did Elzie Higginbottom's company get the contract to manage the building when three people had died in fires at other buildings his East Lake Management Co. managed, Murphy asked.

"Higginbottom did not receive the contract because of his expertise, his brilliance or his originality, but because of his generosity in forking over money to the right politicians," Murphy said.

Higginbottom angrily responded in a news release issued later Tuesday that it was his company's expertise that won him the contract: "East Lake has a substantial record managing high-rise buildings and a 20-year safety record comparable to other top management companies."

Murphy said he was not personally blaming Higginbottom for the deaths of six victims, including three of his own employees, in the Oct. 17 fire. But Murphy said the only reason he could see for Higginbottom and his partner Bob Wislow getting the contract was the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have donated to local politicians -- $315,000 from Higginbottom and $124,000 from Wislow and his companies in recent years.

"In May 2002, the Chicago Reporter found that East Lake had been named as a defendant in 36 separate housing court cases in the past five years -- making the list of 10 worst management companies in Chicago," Murphy said. "Would anyone in their right mind hire this company and continue to rehire them when they had a record like this? It's clear that the management company didn't know anything about managing fires."

Dan Boho, attorney for 69 W. Washington, the limited liability company Higginbottom and Wislow formed with their companies to manage the building, said that Murphy was only seeking to advance "publicity and a personal agenda."

Murphy did not deny his political agenda in addressing the review panel: He said he wanted the panel to recommend a ban on government contracts for anyone who donates more than $3,000 to a political candidate. That would be the best way to prevent future tragedies, he said.

At least one member of the panel said such a recommendation would be way beyond the panel's charge.

"You want us to take the bull by the horns," retired state appellate justice William Cousins protested to Murphy. "You're putting too much weight on our shoulders. We can't do that."

Referring to Murphy's comment that if they did not take his advice, "you may as well take your blue ribbons, go home, and wait for the next round of senseless deaths," Cousins said, "You're really putting it to us."

Murphy has been the public official most outspoken in demanding that heads roll. His demands for an investigation helped prompt Cook County Board President John Stroger to name the panel, dominated by respected former judges, to investigate the fire.

Murphy blasted Stroger and Gov. Blagojevich in the days after the fire for not doing enough, and on Tuesday he mentioned all the donations they have taken from Higginbottom or Wislow and their companies.

Murphy even took on George Ellison, one of the panel's attorneys, as Ellison questioned Murphy about his provocative testimony, asking Murphy whether he had proof the management company never tested smoke chutes or whether Murphy's employees had made formal complaints about stairwell doors being locked.

"I feel like a murder defendant being cross-examined," Murphy said, telling Ellison, "You're blaming the victims here."

"Mr. Murphy, I'm not trying to blame the tenants or the victims here," Ellison said. "I'm just trying to ask questions. Every so often, would you let me get one in please?"



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