Hostile work environment in Chicago’s Department of Water Management triggers $950K settlement

Dilan Abreu, a 40-year veteran bricklayer, claims he was harassed, physically abused and retaliated against by the son of former Ald. Bernard Hansen due to an “unrestricted culture of overtly racist behavior and attitudes.”

SHARE Hostile work environment in Chicago’s Department of Water Management triggers $950K settlement
A newly-installed catch basin cover at East 93rd Street and South Jeffery Boulevard, shown in April 2022.

A scandal involving emails in the Chicago Department of Water Management — which oversees, among other things, the city sewer system — has cost taxpayers again.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Five years ago, a shake-up triggered by racist, sexist and homophobic emails swept out Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy and top deputies William Bresnahan and Paul Hansen, son of former Ald. Bernard Hansen (44th).

Then-Inspector General Joe Ferguson stumbled upon the hate-filled emails while investigating allegations Paul Hansen was using his city email account to sell guns.

Now, the scandal in a department long known as a white bastion of city government is costing Chicago taxpayers dearly.

The City Council’s Finance Committee authorized a $950,000 settlement to Dilan Abreu, a 40-year veteran bricklayer who claims he was harassed, abused and retaliated against by the former alderman’s son because of an “unrestricted culture of overtly racist behavior and attitudes” tolerated by the city. 

Over the two-year period Paul Hansen served as superintendent of Water Management’s North District, Hansen “harassed Hispanic and African-American employees with impunity, enabled by a culture of racist behavior and attitudes that permeates every level of the department,” Abreu’s 2019 federal lawsuit against the city states. 

Hansen was accused of repeatedly using the n-word and other racist epithets to refer to Abreu and other Hispanic employees.

The former alderman’s son was further accused of telling Abreu, “Go back to the island. You don’t belong here” and calling him an “idiot,” a “dumb f--- ” and telling him and other Hispanic employees: “You’re the dumbest people there is.”

Two witnesses were prepared to testify they witnessed the abuse, Deputy Corporation Counsel Susan O’Keefe said Monday.

The pattern of harassment included Hansen blowing smoke in the cancer survivor’s face and attempting to push Abreu into a six-foot hole “in a fit of rage,” as O’Keefe put it.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) asked what it meant to “attempt to push someone in a hole.”

O’Keefe responded: “Mr. Abreu alleged that Mr. Hansen walked toward him purposefully and angrily and bumped him shoulder to shoulder. He did not fall into the hole. Others at the work site indicated he wasn’t near the hole. Some said it was a little close to the hole. ... But he definitely made contact.”  

Abreu’s lawsuit contends he complained about the department’s “racist culture, and specifically Paul Hansen, long before” the scandal broke, but “the city did not take any action to stop Hansen’s harassment.” 

When Abreu filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June 2017, it triggered a “pattern of retaliation” that included being denied overtime and equipment and being subjected to bogus disciplinary action on trumped-up charges, the suit contends.

In 2017, Mayor Rahm Emanuel chose veteran City Hall insider Randy Conner, who is African American, to replace Murphy and gave Conner carte blanche to clean house.

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.

Four current and two former Water Management employees — all Black — joined Abreu in filing federal lawsuits accusing the department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals of “a hostile and abusive work environment” based on race that includes violence, intimidation and retaliation that “weave a tapestry of hostility that dominates every aspect” of their jobs.

That included 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.

On Monday, Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) wondered aloud whether the $950,000 settlement of Abreu’s lawsuit could set a costly precedent for resolving those claims.

“How large does this get now? Can this just explode and mushroom into numerous cases?” 

O’Keefe assured Napolitano there would be no avalanche of suits, given the statute of limitations, because Hansen resigned in May 2017.

“An explosion would have had to have happened” by 2021, O’Keefe said.

Other settlements approved

With nine of the police union’s closest City Council allies opposed, the Finance Committee also signed off on a $900,000 settlement to Dwayne Rowlett, who was shot eight times on New Year’s Day 2017 by a Chicago police officer who resigned last year after the Civilian Office of Police Accountability ruled the shooting unjustified and sought to fire him. 

Deputy Corporation Counsel Caroline Fronczak said the shooting happened after Rowlett initially evaded officers who tried to pull him over for speeding and running a stop sign, then drove up on a sidewalk, sideswiped several vehicles and rammed into a police car.

No gun was recovered but “several knives,” one of them with a “4-to-5-inch blade,” Fronczak said.

When Rowlett was finally pulled over again, a struggle ensued. That’s when Officer Alex Raske fired nine shots, eight of which struck Rowlett, causing him to sustain “serious, disabling” injuries. 

The Finance Committee also signed off on a $15 million settlement to compensate the family of a Guadalupe Francisco-Martinez. The 37-year-old mother of six was headed home from her first day on a new job when she was killed in a crash with a marked Chicago Police SUV at Irving Park Road and Ashland Avenue.

Also approved was a $9 million settlement to Patrick Prince, who spent 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit after being beaten into confessing by Chicago police officers.

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