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Webb: No corruption at city law department, but changes needed

Dan K. Webb. | Sun-Times files

After more than six months reviewing the civil rights division of Chicago City Hall’s law department, former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb has recommended more than 50 policy changes but found no “evidence establishing a culture, practice or approach” of “engaging in intentional misconduct,” according to a 74-page report released Thursday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration commissioned Webb’s review of the department’s Federal Civil Rights Litigation Division after Jordan Marsh, a senior city attorney, resigned in January in the wake of being sanctioned for concealing evidence in a police-shooting case. That case is among six since 2012 in which courts have disciplined city officials for “failure to produce documents in discovery” or for not producing records quickly enough, the report said.

Webb said in an interview it wasn’t possible to review all 1,800 cases — most involving police misconduct — that the civil rights division handled over the past five years. Instead, he and nine other lawyers from his firm, Winston & Strawn, scrutinized 75 “sample” cases “where I would expect to find the biggest problems.”

Webb said that if he found evidence that City Hall attorneys or paralegals deliberately concealed evidence, he would have reported that to city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, but there was nothing to report.

“I found evidence that mistakes were made in discovery and sometimes documents did not get produced,” Webb said. “But I found no evidence that there was any systematic or planned system to conceal evidence.”

The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating the Chicago Police Department for potential civil rights violations in the wake of the furor that followed the release of video showing the fatal police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. The Justice Department had not expressed an interest in the report and didn’t obtain a copy prior to its release, according to Bill McCaffrey, a law department spokesman.

Webb’s review began Jan. 10 — about a week after U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang reversed a jury’s decision that had found that two Chicago cops hadn’t wrongfully killed Darius Pinex, 27, when they shot him during a traffic stop in Englewood in January 2011. The judge granted a new trial. Settlement negotiations are ongoing, court records show.

The judge found that Marsh intentionally misled the court by concealing a recording of a police radio dispatch before the traffic stop.

“Attorneys who might be tempted to bury late-surfacing information need to know that, if discovered, any verdict they win will be forfeit,” the judge wrote.

Steve Greenberg, a lawyer for the Pinex family, said the law department has tried to paint Marsh as a “lone wolf” who behaved improperly, while the department’s problems are more systemic.

“For a report that says they didn’t find much, to make 50 recommendations is pretty shocking,” Greenberg said. “But some of these recommendations are basic common sense that they should have been doing all along.

“They have known they have problems,” Greenberg said. “I still have issues that the same people are still going to be running the henhouse after it’s all done.”

Said Jon Loevy, another attorney who has brought numerous civil rights cases against City Hall: “The city has again spent a lot of money to hire people to tell them what they already know: there is a serious problem, and here are some recommendations for how to fix it. Now the question becomes whether the city will seriously implement those reforms.”

Steve Patton, City Hall’s corporation counsel, acknowledged “there is room for improvement” on discovery issues. “In addition to providing additional training and committing additional resources, we have already adopted and are acting on every one of [Webb’s] recommendations,” he said.

Among the recommendations is that “initial interviews” of police officers accused of wrongdoing should be conducted “separately,” apparently in an effort to combat the code of silence Emanuel has acknowledged exists in the police department.

The report also recommends a “new process” for law department attorneys and paralegals to “directly access” documents produced by the police and the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

The city also should better supervise attorneys and paralegals on “discovery-related matters” and improve procedures concerning electronic discovery, according to Webb’s report.

The review found only one other instance of “intentional misconduct,” which occurred in 2009 and 2010, stemming from a case filed in 2005. In that case, a city lawyer improperly redacted documents, “concealing important information relating to when the documents were generated,” Webb’s report said. Law department officials disciplined the lawyer, who no longer works for City Hall, and the city settled the case.

Winston & Strawn was to charge an hourly rate of $295 for the review, discounted from Webb’s normal hourly rate of $1,335. The law firm has yet to bill City Hall for the investigation.

Webb has served in special investigative roles before, including as court-appointed special prosecutor in the case against former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew, Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko. Vanecko pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 2014 for throwing a punch that led to David Koschman’s death in 2004.