Leader of Italian American group demands apology from Lightfoot over crude remarks alleged in lawsuit

A former Chicago Park District attorney says the mayor berated him with obscenities over an agreement to have a Christopher Columbus statue displayed during the Columbus Day parade.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot at City Hall press conference in May.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is accused of using crude language in berating two attorneys for the Chicago Park District during a Zoom call in October.

Sun-Times file

A civic leader is demanding that Mayor Lori Lightfoot apologize for the obscene and derogatory remarks a lawsuit alleges she made about Italian Americans during a phone call to discuss the statue of Christopher Columbus removed from Arrigo Park.

That statue was taken away on Lightfoot’s orders in 2020 after it became the target of protests and vandalism. The statue is the property of the Chicago Park District, which was sued by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans seeking the statue’s return.

The comment that incensed Ron Onesti, president of the civic committee, was allegedly made during a video call the mayor had the evening of Columbus Day with several people, including two park district attorneys, after she killed a deal the district had made with Onesti’s group to allow the statue to be displayed at the Columbus Day parade, according to the lawsuit.

That deal was described in the lawsuit filed Wednesday by one of the park district officials on the video call, former deputy general counsel George Smyrniotis, who alleged he was given 10 minutes notice of the call with the mayor, which occurred the night after the parade.

On the call, according to the lawsuit, Lightfoot berated Smyrniotis and park district general counsel Timothy King.

“You d--ks, what the f--k were you thinking?” Lightfoot is quoted as saying in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Lightfoot went on to accuse King and Smyrniotis of making “some kind of secret agreement with Italians, what you are doing, you are out there measuring your d--ks with the Italians seeing whose got the biggest d--k ... I am trying to keep Chicago Police officers from being shot and you are trying to get them shot. My d--k is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest d--k in Chicago.”

The mayor, Smyrniotis claims in the lawsuit, went on to defame him, making “rude, insulting, false, and disrespectful statements” that he “lacked an ability to perform his job duties,” asking, among other things: “Where did you go to law school? Did you even go to law school? Do you even have a law license?”

Smyrniotis claims in the lawsuit that the mayor’s comments damaged his reputation and impaired his ability to do his job. He was forced to resign on Feb. 2, 2022, and “suffered lost income, a reduced pension, and ... great emotional distress,” according to the lawsuit.

The mayor’s office had no comment on the lawsuit or on Onesti’s demand for an apology. Later Thursday, the city law department issued a statement saying it “has not yet been served with a complaint and will have no further comment as the matter is now in litigation.”

A worker with We Save Art uses a pressure washer to clean paint from a Christopher Columbus statue located in Arrigo Park at 801 S. Loomis St., Monday, June 15, 2020.

Graffiti painted on the Christopher Columbus statue in Arrigo Park is cleaned off in June 2020. The statue was covered and then removed later that year.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In his lawsuit, Smyrniotis explains he was negotiating with the civic committee to settle their lawsuit at the direction of Michael Kelly, park district superintendent at the time. That led to the deal to give the civic committee temporary custody of the statue and bring it to the parade.

On the call, Lightfoot told Smyrniotis: “Get that f--king statue back before noon tomorrow or I am going to have you fired.”

Onesti said he was appalled by what Lightfoot is accused of saying.

“I’m literally beside myself with amazement. Even though she’s shown signs of this type of behavior in the past, I can’t believe, number one, that she would talk to her attorneys this way. How do you talk to anybody this way?” Onesti said.

“It’s offensive. We’re Chicagoans first. That’s our mayor. And our mayor is talking about her constituency that way. About an ethnic group that way. A very large ethnic group,” Onesti said.

“There isn’t an ethnic group that deserves that kind of vulgar referencing. ... I’m astounded . . . It’s embarrassing and it’s insensitive.”

Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, announces a complaint they are filing against the Chicago Park District, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the City of Chicago at Arrigo Park in the Little Italy neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, July 22, 2021.

Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, is shown in Arrigo Park in July at the fountain where a statue of Christopher Columbus once stood before being removed by the city. Onesti and others were there to announce the filing of a lawsuit seeking the statue’s return.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Onesti demanded an immediate apology from Lightfoot and was “on the verge of demanding the mayor’s resignation,” he said.

“I’ve got to say it’s practically irreparable. That’s why I’m teetering on the apology issue. Because, for her to apologize — I mean, there is irreparable damage,” Onesti added.

Last month, Lightfoot was added as a defendant in the lawsuit filed against the Park District by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans.

The lawsuit claims the removal of the Columbus statute ordered by City Hall violates a nearly 50-year-old agreement the group has with the Park District that says it must obtain written consent from the organization “before making any substantial change” to the plaza or statue. 

“Her position is that the city of Chicago owns it,” Onesti said Thursday.

“The last time I checked, the city of Chicago is our people. We’re the people. We own it. We, as an organization, have a legal claim to it,” he added.

“She needs to sit down and stop wasting ... money and legal hours. ... She’s got to get off her high horse, get away from her pride and just settle this.”

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