Chris Welch, president of the District 209 school board, filed a defamation suit Feb. 15 against Debbie Muhammad and Kenneth Leggin for allegedly making false statements regarding Welch’s character and the circumstances surrounding his Feb. 7 firing as Bellwood School District 88’s attorney.
Welch is a candidate for re-election in April. Leggin is one of 12 candidates running for four seats on the Proviso school board.
The suit follows a Feb. 12 appearance by Debbie Muhammad on AM-1530 WJJG’s radio show “Viewpoints from the Other Side” and states that, during the show, Muhammad said Welch had “been fired by School District 88 for allegedly committing forgery.”
District 88 officials have not commented on reasons for Welch’s dismissal.
The suit further states that Muhammad said Welch “lied about the appraised value of a building located at 8601 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Forest Park, lied about the $40 million bond deal done by the Proviso Township High School District 209 in October, 2003 and had done a number of underhanded things.”
The Forest Park building is currently being renovated and will open this fall as Proviso Township’s magnet high school
In his suit, Welch states that the defendants knew the statements were false and that they constitute defamation of character because they “state a commission of a crime, i.e. forgery, state potentially illegal and corrupt action by Welch [and] prejudice Welch’s reputation or impute to him a lack of ability or an unfitness to perform in his capacity as an attorney and as an elected official in the community.”
“I haven’t been served any papers and my attorney told me don’t talk about it until I have been served,” Muhammad said, refusing to make any further comment.
In addition to being named in Welch’s suit, on Monday Leggin was arrested in Bellwood and charged with stealing political signs – allegedly from Welch’s home.
Leggin said the arrest and the charges were a politically motivated maneuver aimed at silencing him and diverting the campaign from the real issues.
“They claimed that I was taking signs,” he said. “That is a total lie. This is all political because I am running against Chris Welch. This is how they deal with people who are a threat. They did it to [Michael] Manzo, they have done it to Chico Hernandez. They have locked them up too.”
Stating he doesn’t even know where Welch lives, Leggin said the pro-Welch signs found in the trunk of his car had been removed at his neighbors request from their yard. He said the signs allegedly appeared on his neighbor’s lawn without their approval and they asked him to remove them.
“There was a time that I supported Chris,” Leggin said. “Until he backdoored the community and got the $40 million for the magnet school, which he could have built for $15 million. None of that money went in to the classrooms. That money went into the pockets of contractors and Melrose Park cronies.
“This is a tactic to get off what is the real issue. The real issue is the kids, our test scores are low,” Leggin said. “We are under academic warning. We are out here giving raises to school superintendents and our test scores keep dropping. I am going to be vindicated in court.”
Welch stated that the 4-2 vote to relieve him of his duties at District 88 was within the board’s right and he was honored to have served the elementary school district.
“It is my contention that the board had a right to do what they did,” Welch said. “A school board can change attorneys at their leisure. They had a right to do what they did that night.”
Welch’s suit further states that the charges made by Muhammad were made with actual malice and were published with reckless disregard to their truth or falsity, a necessary condition to prove defamation for public officials.
Welch is asking for damages in excess of $5,000,000, in addition to punitive damages and the cost of the suit for the damage to his reputation, reduced level of credibility and emotional distress he alleges he has incurred.
“I don’t have a problem on folks campaigning on the issues but when they make wild and baseless allegations, I am going to see them in court,” Welch said
“These people are under the impression that ‘allegedly’ covers them. I don’t care if they say allegedly or not, to make baseless allegation without any proof thereof is against the law and I am going to prosecute this to the fullest,” he said.
Welch, a member of the Student’s First Party said he hopes the allegations and rumors will not hurt his chances for reelection to District 209 board.
“Certainly that is the whole goal of folks who are making baseless allegations. I hope the electorate sees that this is dirty politics and make folks campaign on the issues,” Welch said.
For Leggins, however, it is Welch’s track record and not Muhammad’s comments that have hurt Welch’s possibilities in April.
“Chris is concerned for his political rear,” Leggin said. “What he is concerned about is that he doesn’t feel he can make it back in office. But it is because of his own doing. His relationship with (Anthony) Bruno, a disbarred attorney. The poor test scores, those are the reasons he might not end up back in that seat in April.”
Currently there are four seats up for reelection in District 209, with 12 candidates running, including Leggin, but Welch said he is confident in his track record.
“We have been putting students first for the last four years. I think first and foremost, we need stability and the benefit of these programs is starting to show,” Welch said.