In defending himself against a lawsuit filed in 2007, District 209 school board President Chris Welch has racked up at least $22,000 in attorney’s fees. At a school board meeting this month he asked his fellow board members to reimburse him with taxpayer funds – and the measure was approved.
Within a long list of bills to be approved by the school board at its June 16 meeting was a line item denoting $22,442 in legal services from Richardson and Mackoff, a Chicago law firm. That firm is defending Welch in an ongoing defamation suit in Cook County Circuit Court for supposedly slanderous statements posted anonymously by the board president on an Internet blog.
Neither the school board nor the district is a party to the case, but District 209’s attorney, Michael DeBartolo, said there is a precedent within the district for approving such expenses. DeBartolo also pointed to an indemnification policy that he said is intended to protect public officials who may be sued for acting on behalf of the district.
“The issue is that Chris Welch – and any other board member – is a board member 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” DeBartolo said. “If Chris Welch comments on anything, some people may take it as him communicating as Chris Welch, president of the District 209 Board of Education.”
DeBartolo stressed that it has not been proven in court whether the author of the Web postings was acting on behalf of the schools. In fact, DeBartolo said it will be the court’s responsibility to decide if the author’s attempts to hide their identity – and any supposed capacity as a public official – preclude them from protection under the state’s indemnification laws.
Rather than wait for the suit to resolve that issue the board is relying on a precedent that allows for the pre-emptive payment of Welch’s legal fees, said DeBartolo.
“It’s understandable that people may not comprehend why there is a basis to pay these legal fees,” DeBartolo said.
Board members Daniel Adams, Robin Foreman and Bob Cox joined Welch – who did not abstain from voting – in approving the use of taxpayer funds to fund the president’s defense. Cox, a Forest Park resident, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the vote.
Theresa Kelly, who forced a separate roll call vote to approve the expense, voted alongside Sue Henry not to pay the bill. A seventh board member, Brian Cross, abstained.
“I’m a little speechless,” Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, said. “I’ve seen a lot of strange things at the BGA, but this is new territory.”
Stewart’s office has functioned as a watchdog agency since 1923, rooting out corruption and waste at the local and state levels in Illinois. As a general rule, said Stewart, government agencies need to follow the mantra that public funds are for public use. That school board members in District 209 knowingly paid a colleague’s legal bills in a case for which the district has no apparent interest goes “way beyond what the indemnification statutes are for.”
In theory, he said, the district could be sued by a taxpayer seeking to have that money returned.
“When you get sued in your official capacity, under the laws of indemnification the unit of government will defend the elected official,” Steward said. “When you get sued in your individual capacity … it’s certainly not appropriate. To the extent that the suit touches on your public duties, that’s legal. But if it involves purely personal conduct, that’s not appropriate.”
The school district includes Proviso East High School, Proviso West High School and the Proviso Math and Science Academy.
“This is personal,” Kelly said of the expense. “This has nothing to do with Proviso Township District 209.”
The plaintiffs in the defamation case are two Chicago attorneys, Burt Odelson & Mark Sterk, who were fired by the district roughly two months before the supposedly libelous statements first appeared on the Web. According to court records, Welch denied authoring the statements in question, but later testified under oath that he did in fact make those statements. Further evidence presented to the court indicates that Welch posted the statements online from his office at Sanchez Daniels & Hoffman, a Chicago law firm where he is employed.
Welch’s codefendant in the case, Emily Robinson, is also an employee at the firm.
Welch did not return phone calls seeking comment, but he did release a written statement that said, in part, that the board’s action falls in line with district policy.
“Other board members have been sued before and have been covered under this policy,” Welch said in the written release. “Even I was sued before and was covered under this same policy. The handbook offers protection to all members of the board.”
Superintendent Robert Libka said he did not question Welch’s attempt to pass the expense on to taxpayers, but said after the meeting that Kelly’s argument against paying the bill merits a second look. According to several district officials Welch informed board members several weeks prior that he intended to seek reimbursement. With Kelly offering the only objections, Libka said he did not see a reason to disturb the apparent harmony on the matter.
“It seemed appropriate at the time,” Libka said of reimbursing Welch’s legal bills. “I probably have more questions now, but I still feel the same.”
Furthermore, Libka said the longstanding political acrimony between Welch and Kelly has fueled a number of accusations over the years, and he’s not inclined to “drop everything” whenever charges are lobbed.
The superintendent, whose contract expires at the end of the month, also said he can see how the lawsuit and the district are “interrelated.” Pressed to explain the connection Libka said he’s not familiar with the details of the case.
“I think I’d have to know more about the lawsuit,” Libka said. “I haven’t read the lawsuit. It’s not something that I’m privy to.”
Both Libka and Kelly said they are not aware of the district having paid any other legal expenses tied to Welch’s defamation suit. According to the billing list received by board members, the invoice covered costs incurred between Dec. 28 and April 2. The civil complaint was filed in August 2007.
DeBartolo said Welch’s codefendant, Robinson, does not qualify for reimbursement because she is in no way affiliated with the school district.