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Lightfoot faced withering criticism over handling of lawsuit tied to fatal fire

Lori Lightfoot

Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

In 2004, a home caught fire on the West Side, killing four children.

Almost immediately, neighbors raised questions about whether 911 calls had been botched by dispatchers, delaying the Chicago Fire Department’s response and costing lives.

At the time, mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot was chief of staff and general counsel for Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, the arm of city government that runs the 911 center. In that role, she oversaw an internal review into possible mistakes by call-takers.

And after the Rev. Dwayne and Emily Funches — the parents of three of the dead children — filed a lawsuit against the city, Lightfoot became central to the case, with the family’s attorney accusing her of lying, being “extremely evasive” during a deposition and changing her account about what documents she created or had in her possession, according to court records.

The judge overseeing the lawsuit also took aim at Lightfoot, calling into question her “attitude” and portraying her handling of a temporary restraining order that was supposed to preserve 911 evidence as “very, very troubling.” Some of that evidence ended up getting destroyed, records show.

The judge, Lynn Egan, said at one hearing that “we have a record that supports a reasonable argument that the city is deliberately withholding evidence in this case.”

Lori Lightfoot fire lawsuit

A small memorial sits outside of 5056 W. Huron, where four children were killed in a fire in September 2004. | Sun-Times file photo

Lightfoot is facing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the April 2 runoff election, which will decide who replaces retiring Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Her time working for ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley to reform the city’s procurement department following a contracting scandal is relatively well known — as is her time working for Daley and Emanuel on police reforms.

Her tenure at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, known as OEMC, under Daley hasn’t been widely reported on. She was a top official there from July 2004 to February 2005, reporting to top Daley aide Ron Huberman.

Lightfoot’s official biography says that, at OEMC, she “ran the day-to-day operations” and “was responsible for 911 operations.”

911 calls ignored?

The fire happened Sept. 24, 2004, at the Funches family home at 5056 W. Huron. The parents were at a nearby church event, and three of their children were home, along with a godson.

The fire appears to have started in a TV set, records show.

A number of people called 911 to report the fire, but central to the Funches’ lawsuit was that early calls were ignored or dropped by dispatchers, delaying a response by firefighters.

“Operators knowingly and intentionally or with an utter indifference and conscious disregard for the plaintiffs and the individuals inside the home . . . failed to properly accept and handle 911 emergency calls reporting the subject fire, including, but not limited to, hanging up on callers who were calling to report the fire,” according to the lawsuit.

City officials also “failed to memorialize information obtained from 911 emergency calls concerning the subject fire” and “failed to coordinate and timely relay accurate information received from 911 emergency callers” to the fire department, according to the lawsuit.

“As a direct and proximate result of one or more of the aforesaid willful and wanton negligent acts and/or omissions” by the city, “the decedents sustained injuries that resulted in their deaths.”

Lightfoot said in a 2006 deposition — a formal interview with the Funches’ attorney, Daniel Biederman Sr. — that she was alerted by someone at her work to the fire on the Friday evening it happened or early the next morning. She described the blaze as “fairly serious” and said she went into the office for a meeting about it.

“I recall that by Saturday morning, and it’s possible earlier, there were allegations that calls came into 911 and that they couldn’t get through or they were hung up on,” Lightfoot said, according to a transcript of the deposition. “And so part of what I set about doing that day was working with staff to track down every single call that came in in connection with that fire, and to get the tapes and to listen to the tapes to understand exactly what was what.”

Several days after the fire, another judge issued a temporary restraining order that told the city to “provide copies of all said evidence to the attorney for the plaintiffs within 30 days,” and to “preserve any and all evidence” relating to 911 “intake and dispatch data calls” for the night of the fire.

Lightfoot received a copy of the order, jotted “operations incident 9/24/04 fire” on a Post-It note and gave it to a secretary, records show.

Despite the court order, the city ended up destroying some of the 911 calls, which city officials later portrayed as inadvertent.

‘Shockingly lax’

Egan said “that the conduct described to Ms. Lightfoot” is “shockingly lax particularly given the fact that she is a licensed attorney in the state. Indeed, her response to the receipt of a temporary restraining order in a case the city had independently acknowledged as sufficiently serious to warrant prior investigation and review of evidence was so cavalier and inadequate that it comes close to violating her duties as an officer of a court.

“Specifically, it appears she delegated the matter to a secretary but without so much as a single word of conversation and then neglected to follow up in any way whatsoever.”

Egan has since retired from the bench. Reached on the phone last week, she told a reporter, “I’m not interesting in getting involved” and hung up.

Biederman couldn’t be reached for comment.

Lightfoot wouldn’t return calls from a reporter, but her campaign spokeswoman released the following statement:

“I took the fire and resulting litigation very seriously, both to figure out what happened and to prevent further tragedy. I directed OEMC to preserve the tape, and this directive was disregarded.

“We thoroughly investigated the dispatcher’s conduct to determine appropriate disciplinary actions and created additional training for all dispatchers to screen, track, and prevent prank 911 calls.

“As mayor, I will continue working with OEMC and other city departments to keep our communities safe, and will create a first-of-its-kind Mayor’s Office of Public Safety to comprehensively and effectively address our city’s public safety needs.”

Lightfoot — who was once rebuked by a federal appeals judge for making what was regarded as a misleading statement while she was a federal prosecutor — also was accused of changing her story about what records she had about the fire, once indicating she had created a timeline of events but then later saying a timeline had been created by someone else, records show.

Lightfoot also indicated at one time that she didn’t have any additional records but then told a city attorney she might have taken some with her after she left OEMC.

Lightfoot’s responses to questions during her deposition were also portrayed by the Funches’ attorney as sketchy. She frequently said she didn’t remember things.

“Ms. Lightfoot was extremely evasive and did not provide complete answers to questions that were asked of her. Ms. Lightfoot testified that she could not remember even the most basic details of the investigation she conducted concerning the death of these four children,” according to a court document filed by Biederman and another lawyer.

Lawsuit dragged on

The lawsuit dragged on for several years, in part because the Funches’ side was having such a difficult time extracting information out of the city, whose attorneys ended up facing sanctions from the judge for alleged misconduct.

The case has been settled, but in the end the city didn’t have to cut a check to the family, a city official said.

Reached by the Chicago Sun-Times on Sunday, Dwayne Funches said he’s following the mayor’s race, and many of his fellow West Side pastors are backing Preckwinkle. He said he hasn’t decided yet who to support, but he said it’s not up to him to assign blame to Lightfoot for anything she did while at OEMC.

“I don’t go around bashing people, because you reap what you sow,” Funches said. “If any discipline needs to be given to her, God will give that to her.”

The Rev. Dwayne Funches speaks at a news conference in 2004 after four children, including three of his own, were killed in a fire at 5056 W. Huron. | Sun-Times file photo