Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was accused Monday of providing “soft landings” for Department of Water Management bosses forced out for exchanging racist, sexist and homophobic emails and violating the Freedom of Information Act to cover up the severity of the scandal.
In a lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court, six people who are current or former water department employees, all African-American, are seeking to compel City Hall to release every one of the offensive emails exchanged between the fired employees.
The court action, filed late Monday, also seeks hefty fines against the city and details of “post-termination payments” made to former Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy and ousted underlings William Bresnahan and Paul Hansen — all of whom “promoted racism within the department,” according to the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Victor Henderson accused the Emanuel administration of stonewalling his Freedom of Information requests and heavily redacting the personnel files he sought in a cover-up he called “Laquan McDonald all over again.”
That’s why he’s pursuing the same legal strategy that forced Emanuel to release the McDonald shooting video in November 2015, hours after Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder for shooting the black teenager 16 times.
Henderson’s lawsuit accusing the water department of creating a “hostile and abusive work environment based on race” is still pending in federal court. Now, in state court, he is trying to get the city to release information he hopes will bolster that federal case and force the city to settle.
“It’s the same thing as Laquan McDonald. They didn’t want that video out because they knew the public would be in an uproar. And I guarantee that, when black people see the full scope of these emails, they’re gonna go ballistic. That’s why they’re hiding them,” Henderson said.
“They allowed these high-ranking officials to call black people [the N-word], make these racist jokes. And then, instead of firing them, they gave them soft landings. The message to people in the Water Department and the message to black people all over the city is that, you can call black people [the N-word], treat them like [the N-word] and it’s OK. No big deal. We’re gonna protect you.”
Water Management spokesperson Megan Vidis branded Henderson’s claim that former employees were provided a soft landing “intentionally misleading and without merit.”
“There are only certain circumstances in which an employee may be denied his or her pension, and resigning under inquiry does not meet the standards,” Vidis wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
Vidis also denied the lawsuit’s claim that the city stonewalled Henderson’s request for all of the hate-filled emails.
“The Department of Water Management has been in regular contact with the law firm that filed this FOIA request, which only asked for personnel records and did not include a request for emails, and the records will be provided as soon as possible,” she wrote.
Besides seeking records about Murphy, Bresnehan and Hansen, Henderson sought details about post-employment payments made to several other former Water Department employees: Michael Dwyer, Jennifer Izban, Irene Caminer and Lucy Pope Anderson. Henderson also sought copies of “complaints and disciplinary actions” involving Murphy, Bresnahan, Izban, Hansen, Caminer, Anderson and another former employee, Anthony Nguyen.
To underscore his claim about “soft-landings,” Henderson produced documents and worksheets obtained from the Municipal Employees pension funds.
They show Murphy, whose wife is a close friend of the mayor’s wife, Amy Rule, resigned on June 2, 2017, but the effective date was delayed until Dec. 25 of that year. He received $5,644 in retroactive pay and a lifetime annuity of $5,644-a-month.
Bresnahan resigned on May 12, 2017, and his resignation took effect the following day. He received $14,094 in retro pay and a monthly annuity check of $7,047.
Caminer resigned Oct. 31, 2017, and her resignation took effect the following day. She received $14,437 in back pay and a lifetime annuity of $7,218-a-month. City Hall insisted she played no role in the email scandal.
“They can terminate you. Or they can give you a soft landing, a full pension and let you ride off into the sunset. Instead of being terminated for abhorrent behavior, they were protected,” Henderson said.
Last year, a housecleaning in the water department — which also was at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals — swept out Murphy, Bresnahan and Hansen. Other high-level supervisors followed them out the door.
Veteran City Hall insider Randy Conner, who is African-American, replaced Murphy and was given carte blanche to clean house.
Sources said it was during the course of an eight-month-long investigation into allegations that Hansen was using his city email account to sell guns that Inspector General Joe Ferguson stumbled upon the hate-filled emails that triggered the housecleaning.
In a follow-up report, Ferguson said a high-ranking deputy — whom sources identified as Hansen — called African-Americans “wild animals” and sent an email with the subject line “Chicago Safari Tickets” to multiple high-ranking Water Management colleagues.
“If you didn’t book a Chicago Safari adventure with us this 4th of July weekend, this is what you missed,” the email states, listing the number of people shot in Englewood, Garfield Park, Austin, Lawndale, South Shore, Woodlawn and other neighborhood plagued by gang violence.
“We guarantee that you will see at least one kill and five crime scenes per three-day tour. You’ll also see lots and lots of animals in their natural habitat.”
Yet another email with the subject line, “Watermelon Protection,” included the image of a Ku Klux Klan robe on a stick in the middle of a watermelon patch.
According to Henderson, Ferguson was not given access to all of the offensive emails and neither was the news media.
Earlier this year, nearly two dozen current and former Water Management employees complained that the same hate-filled culture persists, even after a white commissioner was replaced with an African-American.