Politics at heart of law firm dispute

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By Josh Adams

An unusual vote on an issue perceived by many to be intensely political has once again sparked controversy over who the District 209 Board of Education turns to for legal advice.

During its regular monthly meeting on May 21, the board voted to dump the law firm Odelson and Sterk, and instead, retain the services of Giglio and Del Galdo. Both firms have donated bundles of cash to campaign efforts by board President Chris Welch and Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico, a major backer of Welch and Welch's political ally, Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore.

Aside from the tangled web of political connections, the method by which Giglio and Del Galdo was hired is causing rumblings, as well. When the motion to hire the firm was made, it failed in a tie vote with board Secretary Sue Henry abstaining. After moving on to other business and without holding any further public discussion on the issue, Welch announced that Henry and another board member had changed their vote, thus awarding the district's business to Giglio and Del Galdo.

The vote to dismiss the law firm of Odelson and Sterk was taken prior to deciding whether to retain Giglio and Del Galdo. Both Henry and school board newcomer Robin Foreman said they changed their votes after realizing the district was left without a law firm to represent its interests.

Henry, an employee of Moore's at the county office, didn't explain specifically why she initially abstained.

"I just felt pushed at the time the vote was going down," Henry said.

Robert Cox, a newly elected board member from Forest Park, voted to bring in the new legal firm largely out of fiscal concerns, he said. Based on information provided by the superintendent, Cox said he understood that Odelson and Sterk was attempting to bilk the district out of money.

"Basically, they were billing for services that weren't requested but were being handed down," Cox said.

Superintendent Stan Fields declined to comment on the bills received by Odelson and Sterk, but said that changing law firms was a "business decision" in an effort to get a better value.

"During my nine month tenure I came to the conclusion that the school district would be better served with a different general counsel," Fields said.

A phone call to a managing partner in the law firm, Burt Odelson, was not returned.

Dating back to 1999, Burt Odelson and his managing partner Mark Sterk, have donated more than $19,700 to Proviso's school board president and his political allies, according to campaign filing records maintained by the state.

District 209's Director of Auxiliary Programs Kyle Hastings has taken in more than $14,000 in campaign money from the firm, according to the same state records. Hastings is also the mayor of Orland Hills.

Though less prolific, the managing partners of Giglio and Del Galdo have also been generous with area politicos. Since 2002, Joseph Giglio and Michael Del Galdo have given $19,500 to Serpico's campaign efforts and $1,500 to Welch. Illinois campaign disclosure records indicate the firm has given no money to Moore, the county recorder of deeds.

Welch, the school board president, did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

A little more than one year ago, the District 209 board wrestled with this very proposal, though no vote was taken at the time. At that meeting in April of 2006, board members accused one another of playing politics. In 2006, board member Charles Flowers said he had reservations with both law firms.

"I was all for firing (Odelson and Sterk), but I certainly wasn't interested in bringing in more crooked people," Flowers said after last year's debacle.

At the May 21 board meeting, Flowers voted to dismiss Odelson and Sterk, and then voted against hiring Giglio and Del Galdo. After board members Foreman and Henry reversed their original votes on whether to hire the new firm, Flowers was joined only by Theresa Kelly in the minority.

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