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Sheriff Tom Dart’s personnel board halts firings, suspensions amid legal questions

Friday, December 01, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Steve Schmadeke

The Cook County sheriff’s personnel board has halted all firings and suspensions, months after an appellate court ruling threw into question the legality of hundreds of crucial staffing decisions.

Sheriff Tom Dart has frozen 200-plus misconduct cases pending before his merit board, which makes final decisions on a range of personnel decisions, while officials await a legislative fix to a growing legal mess over how the board has operated in recent years, officials say.

Earlier this year, a state appellate court found that all actions taken by an “illegally constituted” merit board between 2011 and 2015 were void. Now taxpayers are starting to feel the heat. On Friday, a Cook County judge ordered the sheriff to reinstate an officer fired in 2014 — who Dart’s office alleged passed along a jailhouse threat to a crime victim and then lied about it. The court ordered Dart to reimburse the officer about $300,000 in back pay.

Sheriff’s officials said on Friday they aren’t yet sure how to address the growing legal and financial liability, but they’re concerned hundreds of other ousted officers could follow suit.

“At this point it’s completely untenable,” said Dart’s policy chief Cara Smith. “The fact that these are the worst officers and we may have to take them back is obviously a problem.”

But attorneys for the union and fired officers say Dart created the mess by continuing to appoint board members to terms of less than six years without any legal authority to do so. “Dart is not above the law, yet even when he knows he should stop operating this illegal board he keeps doing it anyway,” said Christoper Cooper, an attorney for the officer who was reinstated Friday.

The appellate court decision wasn’t the only reason Dart put the brakes on hirings and firings. In October, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office issued an opinion finding that, until state law is corrected, the merit board should not take any substantive actions because of the risk “that those decisions will be vacated.”

A judge’s decision Friday to reverse the 2014 firing of Officer Dixie Rios may be the tip of the iceberg. In that case, Cook County Judge Diane Larson ordered Dart to give Rios her job back and write a roughly $300,000 check for back pay.

Rios was fired three years ago after allegedly passing along a jailhouse threat from her brother, a high-ranking gang member, sheriff’s officials said. Cooper, the officer’s attorney, denied those claims and said the investigation into his client was “bumbling, slipshod and haphazard.”

The sheriff’s office is considering its legal options, Smith said, and was unsure if it would allow Rios to start work Monday.

Because of the broad nature of the appellate court’s ruling earlier this year, Smith said she could not rule out defendants challenging their arrests by telling a judge the sheriff’s officer who cuffed them was never properly appointed. She said the office is still working to figure out how to solve those issues going forward, likely with another legislative fix.

Other legal challenges to the merit board’s authority have surfaced. Last week a judge refused a request by attorneys for Teamsters Local 700, which represents about 3,400 correctional officers, to stop the merit board from ruling on disciplinary cases. But Judge Michael Mullen also told the attorneys the sheriff would be “foolhardy” to begin any merit board disciplinary proceedings.

“It would be a disservice to our entire community,” Mullen said, telling the attorneys he would welcome a new motion for a temporary restraining order if the merit board took any disciplinary actions.

“Right now you’re running around with an improperly constituted board,” Mullen told Dart’s attorneys. “He was appointing people to unexpired terms without any basis to do so.”

A bill that would allow Dart to reappoint the entire board is awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature. A Rauner spokesperson said Friday that the governor is still reviewing the bill.

While the law requires that seven members sit on the board, two have recently departed.

Smith, Dart’s policy chief, said that the sheriff is still able to file disciplinary charges and hold hearings to determine if an officer should be allowed to remain on the job while the charges are contested.

“It hasn’t affected our ability to obviously investigate misconduct, it’s just the final adjudication of what the extent of discipline will be,” she said. “Once the legislation passes it will clear up any ambiguity about the appointment process.”

“Our main goal is to have a fully empowered board that can adjudicate the most serious discipline we have.”

The merit board mess grew out of a 2013 lawsuit filed by fired Officer Percy Taylor. A Cook County judge reversed his dismissal and ordered the sheriff to pay back wages. The appellate court upheld that ruling, finding that the board was “illegally constituted” from 2011 to 2015, and in September the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, meaning the lower court rulings stood.

At least three new lawsuits have been filed in recent weeks, including one by a correctional officer who was fired after allegedly stealing $2 from a jail detainee, another by a jail guard who was terminated for allegedly misusing family and medical leave, and another by four officers who were suspended without pay over a year ago but have yet to receive a hearing before the merit board.

The Associated Press contributed.

Twitter @SteveSchmadeke

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