Water Management employees file federal lawsuit

Chicago City Hall. | Getty Images

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered additional training and an outside review of city policies to insulate himself from discrimination claims and lawsuits tied to the email scandal that forced a high-level shake-up in the city Department of Water Management.

The pre-emptive strike didn’t work.

On Thursday, four current and two former Water Management employees filed a federal lawsuit against the city and the department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals.

READ IT: A copy of the lawsuit is below
EMAILS: Racist and sexist emails led to shakeup at water department

The lawsuit accuses the city and top Water Management officials of “a hostile and abusive work environment based on race that includes violence, intimidation, retaliation, constructive discharge against the plaintiffs and the class of similarly situated former and current” employees.

It seeks “unpaid wages, liquidated damages, attorneys fees and declaratory and injunctive relief.”

Plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit include: current employees Derrick Edmond, Katherin Ealy, Craig Robinson, Eddie Cooper Jr. and Robert T. Laws Jr.; and former employees Vicki Hill and Adebola Fegbemi.

All six are African-American, and according to the lawsuit, all faced “deliberate acts of discrimination during their employment based on their race.” Indeed, the suit claims the on-the-job actions against the plaintiffs “weave a tapestry of hostility that dominates every aspect” of their job.

That tapestry includes getting less-desirable shifts and work assignments and being denied promotions, transfers, overtime and training opportunities.

Black women were routinely referred to as “bitches and whores,” the suit contends. Those who dared complain were also punished with “unfair, arbitrary and capricious” discipline, plaintiffs claim.

And in spite of a shake-up touched off by the offensive emails that has already swept out five high-level managers, the city has “done nothing to remedy” the toxic environment, the suit contends.

The city was accused of failing to “train, supervise and discipline” Water Management supervisors who violate civil rights.

“This lack of training, supervision and discipline fosters a climate in the ranks … that, if an individual’s rights are violated, they do not have to report it, can look the other way and maintain a code of silence,” the lawsuit states, repeating a term more frequently used in the Chicago Police Department.

“This comfort, along with the persistent and defiant code of silence, motivate and bolsters the open and notorious, hostile and abusive work environment based on race and sex created and proliferated in the department.”

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey refused to comment on the specific allegations made in the lawsuit.

He issued a statement that the city has “no tolerance for discrimination of employees in any form” and does not “take any allegations of this nature lightly.”

Emanuel is committed to giving newly appointed Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner “the support and resources necessary to implement changes and address issues” at the Department of Water Management, he said.

At his confirmation hearing earlier this week, Conner assured sympathetic aldermen that he would “change the culture” in a department with a history of intolerance and scandal.

Conner is named as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. So are former Commissioner Barrett Murphy; former Ald. John Pope (10th), now a deputy commissioner in the water department; and three other high-ranking department officials.

Last month, a housecleaning triggered by the email scandal swept out Murphy, managing deputy William Bresnahan and district superintendent Paul Hansen.

Murphy, whose wife Lynn Lockwood is a close friend of the mayor’s wife Amy Rule, offered his resignation after being included in the chain of offensive emails and taking no action to stop it.

The Chicago Sun-Times was the first to report that Inspector General Joe Ferguson uncovered the racist, sexist and homo-phobic emails circulating in the Department of Water Management while investigating allegations that Hansen had used his city email account to sell guns.

Last week, two more high-level supervisors were placed on administrative leave pending termination proceedings. Both have since resigned.

Ferguson’s investigation is ongoing and is almost certain to trigger more high-level firings, City Hall sources said.

More from the Chicago Sun-Times