A coalition of news organizations convened by the Chicago Tribune is seeking to block the Chicago Park District’s efforts to seal a pending lawsuit alleging Mayor Lori Lightfoot yelled obscenities at and defamed a Park District attorney during a call about a controversial Christopher Columbus statue.
The Park District earlier this month asked a Cook County judge to shield from the public all records in the defamation lawsuit brought by George Smyrniotis, a former Park District attorney who alleges Lightfoot blocked an agreement that had been reached with an Italian American organization to allow the statue to be displayed in a parade.
Smyrniotis also alleges the mayor yelled obscene comments at him and another Park District attorney on a heated Zoom call, declaring that while they were “out there stroking your d—- over the Columbus statue, I am trying to keep Chicago police officers from being shot and you are trying to get them shot.”
The Park District is arguing the case should be sealed to protect attorney-client privilege as it defends itself in a separate lawsuit brought by an Italian American organization over Lightfoot’s decision to remove a Columbus statue in Little Italy following protests in the city in 2020.
But the coalition of news organizations — which also includes the Chicago Sun-Times, Illinois Press Association, WBBM-Ch. 2, WMAQ-Ch. 5, WLS-Ch. 7, WFLD-Ch. 32, WBEZ and WGN-Ch. 9 — argues in a petition filed late Tuesday that “the public has a significant interest in knowing about allegations of government wrongdoing.” That interest outweighs the potential for privileged information being disclosed, the organizations argue in their court filing.
“Allegations of workplace misconduct committed by a public official are significant in any context,” the petition states. “Against the backdrop where many public figures have been ousted from leadership roles based on statements or conduct that is thought to be insensitive or inappropriate, the public has an interest in the impact of statements that the complaint attributes to the mayor.”
Tribune Executive Editor Mitch Pugh said in a statement that “we find it unfathomable that anyone would argue this case should be conducted in secrecy given it involves the words and actions of public officials.”
“The coalition of media organizations that joined together to file this motion should be a clear signal of the stakes,” Pugh said. “We are gratified to see this distinguished group of media companies stand united in defense of the public’s right to know.”
The media organizations also argue the public has a vested interest in the debate over the removal of monuments, which has become a major local and national issue, as well as public safety, which Lightfoot allegedly discussed.
“Weighing this blanket assertion of privilege against the wide-ranging and significant public interest in this matter, the balance weighs heavily in favor of disclosure here,” the news organizations stated in the petition.
Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons said in a statement that its motion was intended “to preserve its right to privileged communications with counsel.”
“The attorney-client privilege embodies a fundamental principle of our jurisprudence in that it protects the confidentiality of communications between attorney and client,” Lemons said.
Smyrniotis’ attorney declined to comment.
Lightfoot has said she ordered the removal of Columbus monuments after activists forcibly tried to remove a more prominent statue of Columbus in Grant Park, leading to violent clashes between police and protesters. Soon after, the city took down the statues in Grant Park and Little Italy and later removed a lesser-known statue in the South Chicago neighborhood.
The removal of the Little Italy Columbus statue prompted lawyers for the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans to sue, saying removing the statue violated a 1973 agreement. The defamation lawsuit alleges the Park District and the Italian American organization had reached an agreement last year that would have allowed the statue to be displayed in the group’s annual Columbus Day parade and were negotiating over its permanent removal.
When Lightfoot found out, the lawsuit says, she threatened to pull the permit for the parade and ordered Park District officials — including Smyrniotis, then deputy general counsel for the Park District and who had worked on the settlement — to attend a Zoom meeting.
At the meeting last year, Smyrniotis alleges, Lightfoot “proceeded to berate and defame” the lawyers and asked them, “Where did you go to law school? Did you even go to law school? Do you even have a law license?”
Lightfoot told them that they had to submit their pleadings to a city lawyer for approval and were told “not to do a f—— thing with that statue without my approval.”
“Get that f—— statue back before noon tomorrow or I am going to have you fired,” Lightfoot said, according to the complaint.
“You make some kind of secret agreement with Italians. … You are out there stroking your d—- over the Columbus statue, I am trying to keep Chicago police officers from being shot and you are trying to get them shot,” Lightfoot said, according to the complaint. “My d— is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest d— in Chicago.”
Lightfoot has dismissed the allegations in the defamation lawsuit as “wholly lacking in merit” and called its claims “deeply offensive and ridiculous.”
Smyrniotis alleges the comments defamed him by implying he lacked the ability to perform his job duties. He resigned from the Park District in February, according to the lawsuit.
Source : https://www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-park-district-lightfoot-tribune-intervene-20220427-c2b3qdduhzfjvbxscmtzn5ovhe-story.html#ed=rss_www.chicagotribune.com/arcio/rss/category/news/