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City accused of trading O’Hare OT, equipment and jobs for political work

Passengers arrive for American Airlines flights at O'Hare International Airport on November 30, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 30: Passengers arrive for American Airlines flights at O'Hare International Airport on November 30, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. American Airlines was offering incentives to entice pilots to fly during the busy Christmas holiday travel period after a computer glitch mistakenly granted too many pilots time off during that time leaving thousands of flights short-staffed. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775085604

O’Hare International Airport motor truck drivers got overtime, equipment and job assignments in exchange for political work, some performed on city time, and those who refused faced “extreme retaliation,” a new lawsuit contends.

In a Nov. 17 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, drivers Hector Hernandez and Charles Termini accuse Deputy Aviation Commissioner William Helm and airport managers Joseph Alesia and Kevin Martin of carrying out the scheme that violated their constitutional rights and deprived the drivers of tens of thousands of dollars in annual overtime pay.

After a class-action union grievance on the issue was dismissed, the “political discrimination” was reported last spring to the FBI and to Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who started conducting interviews.

That’s when Hernandez and Termini “experienced shunning, segregation” and “hellacious bullying and intimidation” while being deprived of overtime and “prime assignments,” the suit contends.

Termini was “written up three times” last month alone on “trumped up and spurious allegations” after higher-ups held “secret meetings” to discuss ways to target him, the suit contends. The drivers were called “snitch” and “canary,” the suit claims.

The alleged political favoritism was “brought to the attention” of newly-appointed Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee, named as a defendant along with the city.

The suit seeks class-action status for other motor truck drivers harmed by the political favoritism, along with back pay, damages and a “cease and desist” order.

Helm acknowledged being a volunteer for the 40th Ward Regular Democratic Organization of Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader.

But Helm called “totally baseless” the allegation that overtime, which could pad the salary of a motor truck driver by “$20,000 or more” a year, was doled out based on politics.

“Absolutely and unequivocally no. There is absolutely no politics going on in that section,” Helm said Monday. “It’s a disgruntled employee. That’s all it is. It’s a frivolous lawsuit.”

Helm categorically denied that drivers were, as the lawsuit contends, “required … to perform political work for certain local Democratic precincts while on duty and, at times, on city equipment.”

Instead, Helm said he followed the collective bargaining agreement by “evenly distributing” overtime.

“I’ve been involved as a political volunteer for a long time. It’s a very easy thing to say about me,” he said.

Alesia declared himself “one-thousand-and-twenty percent apolitical.”

“In a lot of city [departments], people are political. I am not political. I don’t even have to think about whether I’m doing something wrong because, being apolitical, I have nobody to turn to. I have a clear conscience. I know it’s not true,” Alesia said.

“I have never seen it. People know I’m not political so they would never do that in front of me.”

In distributing overtime among motor truck drivers, Alesia said, “whoever’s got the lowest hours gets called first.”

Hernandez stood his ground in a telephone interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

He said he’s blown the whistle on political favoritism since 2015. That’s when, he claims, Helm started pressuring drivers under his command to “deliver political materials and contributions to certain Democratic precincts,” often on city time, using city equipment. The tasks helped the campaigns of Emanuel, O’Connor and their political allies.

“Working politics on city time and using city vehicles to do political work — it’s illegal. Paying people overtime for doing political work is illegal. And they’re getting away with it,” Hernandez said.

“This is … corruption. … We’ve got a political guy here, Bill Helm, putting pressure on everybody. Either you work politics, you give money, you buy tickets [or you pay the price]. Everything is on the table as far as [overtime], new vehicle, what snow lead team you’re working. Everything here has to do with that.”

Those who refused to go along “worked little to no overtime,” he said.

Martin could not be reached for comment. Aviation Department spokesperson Lauren Huffman and Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey refused to comment on the lawsuit.

In 2011, Helm, then president of the 47th Ward Democratic Organization, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery for allegedly striking a man in a bar on election night. Helm said then he was “amazed and shocked” by his arrest more than a month after the alleged incident.

He saw an “altercation” at the bar involving someone he called a longtime campaign worker, but “I had nothing to do with it. … It’s politically motivated,” he said then.

The Illinois Office of Executive Inspector General subsequently found that while working for the state Department of Transportation, Helm “engaged in approximately 41 hours of personal conversations on his personal telephone during work hours” over a six-month period ending in March 2012 and “repeatedly used a state vehicle to visit and transport a non-state employee.”

Helm resigned from his IDOT job during the investigation.