Sheriff Dart retaliation lawsuit to cost $2.4 million
Friday, February 14, 2014
by Hal Dardick
The Cook County Board next week is expected to approve spending $2.4 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that Sheriff Tom Dart retaliated against deputies who backed his political opponent when he first sought the job eight years ago.
Dart has objected to the settlement, believing he could ultimately win the case, but it was mediated under the auspices of the federal courts, endorsed by the state’s attorney’s office and recommended by the Cook County Litigation Subcommittee, making a rejection by county commissioners highly unlikely.
Lurking behind the machinations of the lawsuit is a complex tale of Chicago politics, alleged jail abuse and public images.
The original case was filed by 21 sheriff’s deputies who alleged that Dart and his subordinates were responsible for the disbanding of their elite Special Operations Response Team at the County Jail. The unit was disbanded weeks after Dart won the November 2006 general election, but before he took office shortly after. During that time, Dart was chief of staff in the sheriff’s office.
The deputies alleged the unit was disbanded to punish them for backing Richard Remus, their former commander, in the three-candidate March 2006 primary election. The deputies contended that the alleged retaliation was a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech and said it resulted in lower wages, lost overtime pay and unrealized future promotions.
In late 2012, a jury awarded nearly $1.6 million to the deputies. A judge later reduced that to less than $1.4 million. Dart continued to deny the team’s disbandment was an act of retaliation and vowed to appeal.
But the case was not appealed, said Commissioner Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park, chairman of the Litigation Subcommittee. Instead, it went to arbitration, resulting in the proposed settlement.
There will be no admission of any wrongdoing as part of the settlement, Silvestri said. Instead, making the payment is a way to avoid potentially higher costs, both for any future settlement and legal fees, if the appellate court were to side with the deputies, he said.
“It was our intention to appeal the jury’s verdict,” said Cara Smith, Dart’s chief of policy and communications. “We objected to the settlement, and it was agreed to over our strong objections.”
Dart has maintained that the special guard unit was disbanded and replaced with the Emergency Response Team as part of an overall effort to clean up jail operations. Of the 21 deputies who brought the suit, six were accepted on the new team, six didn’t apply and the rest didn’t qualify, according to the sheriff’s office.
The events that form the backdrop to the lawsuit stretch back 15 years.
Although Dart has fashioned himself as a reformer and won accolades in many quarters for working to clean up the jail and root out illegal patronage hiring, he came up through the powerful 19th Ward Democratic organization that for decades has controlled the sheriff’s office and the thousands of jobs it controls.
An attorney and former state legislator, Dart was chief of staff to former Sheriff Michael Sheahan of the 19th Ward. When Sheahan did not seek reelection in 2006, Dart ran to replace his boss — with the backing of Democratic power brokers, including Sheahan and then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
Remus, who also hailed from the 19th Ward, had split from Sheahan after Remus resigned from the sheriff’s office in 2003 following a series of Tribune stories that detailed how guards assigned to his team invaded a maximum-security cell block at the jail in 1999, beat inmates and then filed false reports to cover up the misconduct.
A month before the 2006 primary, a jail guard with alleged ties to Remus was accused by Sheahan of plotting to help six inmates escape to muddy up Sheahan and Dart before the election. The guard was later convicted and sent to prison, and six other guards with alleged ties to Remus were later suspended.