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Finance Committee to consider $20M settlement after drunk cop plows into 2 men

Joseph Frugoli

Joseph Frugoli | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago taxpayers will pay $20 million to compensate the families of two men killed by inebriated off-duty police detective Joseph Frugoli after victims’ attorneys argued that the Chicago Police Department’s code of silence allowed a cop with a history of driving drunk to believe he could do so without consequence.

The settlement, first disclosed two months ago, is on the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the City Council’s Finance Committee. If, as expected, aldermen sign off on the pay-out, the latest in a parade of costly settlements tied to alleged police wrongdoing would be approved by the full City Council next Wednesday.

“These two young men burned to death. There was dramatic testimony as to how they died. The testimony as to the code of silence and how this enabled Frugoli to act in a criminal manner was overwhelming. That’s why this was such a powerful case,” Kevin Conway, an attorney for the family of victim Fausto Manzera told the Chicago Sun-Times in mid-December.

The $20 million settlement will be divided evenly between the families of Manzera and Andrew Cazares. The two men were sitting in their dark car — after a flat tire on the Dan Ryan Expressway shorted out the vehicle’s electricity — when it was hit by Frugoli in 2009.

The city waved the white flag just four days after surrendering a document that should have been turned over to plaintiffs’ attorneys before the trial and appeared to prove their claim that a “code of silence” — famously acknowledged by Mayor Rahm Emanuel — led Frugoli to believe he could continue to drive drunk.

Conway has called the withheld document “a big deal” and a major factor in determining the large settlement.

“Attorneys talked to the jurors afterwards and they were moved by the withholding of perhaps the most important document in the case,” Conway said then.

“It showed that, very early on in his employment as a police officer, he committed a number of serious crimes and he was not held accountable.”

Those documents describe how Frugoli was suspended for five days in 1992 after he allegedly punched two people at the First Base Tavern in Bridgeport, grabbed one by the throat, threw them on a pool table and hit them with pool cues. He also allegedly threw glasses and broke two bar stools.

The off-duty cop later admitted he’d been drinking but “was not intoxicated.” A sergeant would testify that she’d reached the same conclusion. But Frugoli was never given a field sobriety test or Breathalyzer, records show. And he was allowed to drive away from the scene.

During closing arguments cut short by the settlement, plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the bar fight put Frugoli on a “path of destruction” up to the fatal crash. Frugoli was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2012 for driving drunk and killing the men.

It was the eighth time under Emanuel’s nearly seven-year watch that a judge had sanctioned the city for withholding evidence in a police misconduct case.

Earlier this month, a city attorney resigned and two more were suspended in the continuing fall-out from the string of embarrassing lapses in which judges have found the city failed to produce evidence to defendants in civil cases.

In a memo to Law Department employees, Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel said then he has a responsibility to ensure that those under his command “meet and, in many cases exceed, the professional standards required” to represent the city.

“Any failure to meet those standards can quickly erode the trust the public places in us and mistakes can have lasting, significant consequences that damage the collective reputation with judges, opposing counsel and taxpayers,” Siskel wrote.

“We have taken steps to discipline attorneys who failed to meet those standards. These actions will not be tolerated under my leadership.”

As a result, Siskel said he had accepted the resignation of one attorney, suspended another for 30 days and will put that lawyer on a performance plan upon return and slapped yet another lawyer with a five-day suspension.

“These actions were absolutely necessary. There are hundreds of employees in the Law Department who represent the city with integrity and distinction every day. It would be unfair to allow their reputations and performance to be tarnished by those who failed to meet the expected professional standards,” he wrote.

The Finance Committee will also be asked to approve two other lesser pay-outs–for $350,000 and $175,000—to settle lawsuits in which the defendants are Chicago Police officers.