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City, whistleblowers settle lawsuit; Rahm won’t have to testify

A settlement in a lawsuit against the city means Mayor Rahm Emanuel won't have to testify about an alleged "code of silence" in the Chicago Police Department. | File photo

The city has settled a lawsuit filed by two police officers who alleged they were retaliated against for helping to expose corruption.

That $2 million settlement, announced Tuesday as the trial in the lawsuit was about to start, means there will be no need for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to testify about statements he has made in recent months denouncing a “code of silence” inside the Chicago Police Department.

“That’s an amount we concluded makes sense for the city and for taxpayers,” Steve Patton, Chicago’s corporation counsel, said Tuesday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after the settlement was announced.

Shannon Spalding, one of the officers who sued, welled up as she addressed reporters in the lobby of the federal courthouse Tuesday.

“I think change is upon us. It’s a new city of Chicago a new department,” she said. “I think 99 percent of the officers work with integrity with honesty and . . . they dedicate their lives. They don’t want to work with corruption, and now I think they’re going to have the resources and the avenues that they need to report it.”

RELATED STORY: Ending silence on ‘code of silence’ could be costly for city

Emanuel had been expected to be called to testify about the Chicago Police Department’s “code of silence,” the alleged unwritten rule among officers not to expose wrongdoing by their peers.

The department has long denied such a code exists, but the mayor acknowledged it last year in an address to the Chicago City Council. At an unrelated press conference at Amundsen High School hours after the settlement was announced in court, Emanuel defended the decision to open the city’s checkbook.

“It wasn’t about me. It was about this case. It was not about my position on the code of silence because I couldn’t have been clearer. . . . When I spoke to the City Council, I spoke for the first time as any mayor and gave voice to what people were saying in hushed tones. Nobody could miss what I said to the City Council,” the mayor said.

“The settlement here was about this case not being the right case. The settlement here was about saving money for taxpayers because had we gone to trial as a city, there was a high probability that it would cost the city more . . . . So, there was a settlement here that would actually save the taxpayers money,” he said.

City Attorney Steven Patton said that a judge’s ruling that Emanuel would have to take the stand was not the reason the city opted to settle on the eve of trial, four years after the lawsuit was filed. Rather, Patton said, after getting a favorable ruling that would have allowed testimony from Emanuel, lawyers for Spalding and fellow officer Daniel Echeverria approached the city with a “substantially reduced” settlement demand.

“What really changed . . . after the last hearing in this case, week before last, is the plaintiffs came to us and asked us to restart settlement negotiations that had come to an impasse almost two months ago,” Patton said Tuesday.

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Spalding and Echeverria had initially requested $8.2 million. Jeffrey Taren, lawyer for the officers, declined to discuss the negotiations.

“They can spin it any way they want,” Taren said. “I’m not privy to the decision-making process for the city. That’s up to Steve and the mayor. This case was going to go forward, and successfully, with or without the mayor’s statements. What [the city’s] calculus was, I don’t know.”

The existence of the “code” has often been a side story in lawsuits over police corruption, but Spalding and Echeverria’s case put the issue front and center. The pair alleged their superiors told them in 2007 to ignore evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Ronald Watts and Kallat Mohamed, CPD narcotics officers who would eventually plead guilty to federal charges for shaking down drug dealers in the Ida B. Wells housing projects.

Echeverria and Spalding went to the FBI, and what the veteran officers thought would end with a simple meeting eventually turned into “Operation Brass Tax.” And while they tried to limit their involvement in the investigation to personal time, it became so time-consuming that the officers were forced to tell CPD’s internal affairs, then formally detailed to the FBI.

Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria address reporters in lobby of federal courthouse after announcing they had settled their code of silence lawsuit against the city for $2 million. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria address reporters in the lobby of the federal courthouse after announcing they had settled their “code of
silence” lawsuit against the city for $2 million. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

Spalding and Echeverria spent two years working exclusively on the Watts investigation. Watts was sentenced in October 2013 to 22 months in prison, Mohammed to 18 months.

But lawyers for Echeverria and Spalding claim Internal Affairs Chief Juan Rivera blew their cover. Spalding and Echeverria were branded “rat motherf——” and told that their bosses didn’t want them in their units. Their actions allegedly made the brass so angry that Spalding was warned to “wear her vest” so she wouldn’t be shot in the parking lot for crossing the thin blue line.

Patton said the city wants to encourage such whistleblowing, not discourage it — and, he said, “there was no dispute that the employment actions that they complained about actually occurred” — though, he noted, all the alleged retaliation all took place before Emanuel took office.

The lawsuit spent years winding through the federal courts. Meanwhile, simmering mistrust of the Chicago Police Department boiled over last year. And that forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to admit to the City Council in December there is a “code of silence” at CPD.

While that would seem to give plaintiffs more leverage, Patton said Tuesday that “what really changed is, plaintiffs came to us, asked us to re-start settlement negotiations. . . . They were prepared to substantially reduce their demand to settle the case.”

In the lobby of the federal courthouse, Taren said the case was not about the $2 million payout — city attorneys said about $1 million will go to pay lawyers’ fees; Taren said his bill was not that large — but about the pervasive “code of silence.”

“This case was not about money,” Taren said, as Spalding and Echeverria held hands just behind him. “This was about the ‘code of silence’ and trying to end the code of silence. And there’s a lot that still has to be done.”

Spalding has been on non-duty related disability since 2013 because of stress related to the retaliation by her superiors made her unable to continue as an active duty police officer, Taren said. She has not decided whether she will be able to return to her job.

“If no other officer has to walk one day in our shoes it will be worth everything that I lost personally, which includes the job that I love,” Spalding said.

Taren also said the judge’s ruling this month that Emanuel could be called to testify about the code of silence was not the reason the case was settled about four years after it was filed.

“We know that there are going to be skeptics that say this case settled because the mayor of Chicago did not want to testify. . . . That’s an insult to our clients,” Taren said. “This case did not depend on testimony of the mayor. We asked the court to have him to testify so we could memorialize for once . . . under oath what’s already been acknowledged regarding the code of silence. That’s been accomplished.”

As the case proceeded toward trial, City Hall was forced to reverse decades of denials, acknowledging in U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman’s courtroom this month that some Chicago police officers follow an unwritten rule to turn a blind eye to other officers’ wrongdoing. City lawyers had made the concession in bid to keep Emanuel off the stand, but Feinerman had ruled Emanuel could be called to testify.

But Patton said the mayor’s testimony would have had little impact on the case.

“The mayor being ordered to testify did not result in the settlement in this case,” Patton said. “There wasn’t a lot the mayor could add to this. They wanted him to confirm what he said in December.”

Patton said the mayor’s repeated statements about the existence of a “thin blue line” among CPD officers, including a December speech to the City Council, does not mean the city will have to capitulate in any lawsuit that mentions the “code of silence.”

“You can’t deny the undeniable,” he said. “It’s not a good strategy to try to win a lawsuit by taking a position that you don’t believe, the mayor doesn’t believe, that most of us don’t believe.

“The fact that there is a code of silence, and at least some officers on some occasions don’t report wrongdoing . . . doesn’t mean that it happens every time or all the time.”

Court watchers had predicted the case would be settled before the trial started. Not only had the judge refused to change his mind about Emanuel’s testimony, but lawyers also wanted to bring up at trial the botched investigation into the 2004 death of David Koschman. Cmdr. Joseph Salemme, a defendant in the lawsuit, played a role in the Koschman case.

Koschman died after he was punched by former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew, Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

Settlement in 'whistleblower' lawsuit