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After picking up lost phone, construction worker claims he was wrongfully arrested, harassed by Chicago alderman

Benjamin George has sued Ald. James Gardiner and other city employees, saying his life was upended after he found a cellphone that belonged to an ally of the ward boss.

45th Ward Ald. James Gardner
Sun-Times/Rich Hein

A construction worker has sued Ald. James Gardiner and the city claiming he was wrongfully arrested and subjected to harassment that upended his life after picking up a lost cellphone that belonged to an ally of the Northwest Side ward boss.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleges that the 45th Ward alderman, his ward superintendent Charles Sikanich and more than seven Chicago cops “abused their authority” in targeting Benjamin George for merely attempting to return the “misplaced” phone.

The lawsuit holds that George came across the phone on Aug. 19, 2019, when he stopped at a 7-Eleven store in Jefferson Park. While the suit notes that George “always intended to return it to the 16th District police station after work,” the construction boss’ day allegedly stretched on longer than he initially expected.

Meanwhile, Gardiner allegedly urged Sikanich to report the phone stolen when he realized it was lost, according to the suit.

As George was on his way to return the phone to the station, his roommate informed him that two officers “were at their home profanely, and threateningly” asking about the device. After the officers left, the suit holds that Gardiner and Sikanich separately visited the home and “used disparaging language, and otherwise exerted inappropriate and coercive pressure” as they demanded to know why the roommate let George live there.

Sikanich, Gardiner’s ward superintendent for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, then circled the neighborhood in a city-owned truck, the suit claims. Around that time, an individual believed to be Gardiner also called George and accused him of stealing the phone, according to the lawsuit.

Daniel Massoglia, one of George’s attorneys, questioned how the alleged theft victim and his boss even knew where George lived.

“I have no idea how Ald. Gardiner or Charles Sikanich would’ve gotten that address if it wasn’t given to them by the Chicago police, which is completely unacceptable, it’s out of the norm and it’s very strange,” said Massoglia, an attorney with First Defense Legal Aid.

Massoglia said his legal team is now probing “the relationship between the police, the alderman, his ward superintendent [and] why this investigation was conducted in this very strange way that leads to these horrible consequences for Mr. George.”

The suit itself accuses Gardiner and Sikanich of using the “imprimatur of city authority and office to act as de facto vigilante police officers, an outrageous, spiteful, arbitrary, irrational, and unconscionable use of state power.”

Sikanich was previously taken into custody in 2014 after allegedly impersonating a cop, according to a police spokeswoman. While an arrest report posted online shows that he was charged with battery and unlawful representation of an officer, the spokeswoman said there's no record of him being charged in the case.

Minutes after the call with Gardiner, George and one of his employees showed up to return the phone at the 16th District station at 5151 N. Milwaukee Ave. Before entering, George unholstered a licensed and unloaded gun and left it in his vehicle, the lawsuit says.

After turning over the phone, George was allegedly “seized” by officers and told to “shut up” when he asked why he was being detained and requested legal representation. George, who is of Romanian descent, was also called a “gypsy” by a desk sergeant, the lawsuit alleges.

What’s more, the suit claims that officers held his employee at gunpoint when they went to recover the weapon, which allegedly hasn’t been returned.

George was charged with a misdemeanor count of theft and released more than a day later, the suit claims. Though his charge was later dropped weeks later when officers failed to appear in court, George claims that he still hasn’t recovered from the incident.

The suit claims he left the state after losing his home and suffering financial losses and emotional trauma. He was even hospitalized last October in the psychiatric unit of Evanston Hospital, according to the lawsuit.

“That day totally changed my life. I still relive it, and every time, it hurts,” George said in a statement.

His legal team also includes Bobby Vanecko, a member of the Daley clan who recently penned an explosive letter alleging a family history of racism. Since he’s still studying law and not a licensed attorney, Vanecko needed permission from the Illinois Supreme Court to join the suit.

Gardiner and Sikanich didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. A police spokesman and a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.