In a civil case that could shine a light on political connections and backroom deals in Cook County, District 209 school board President Chris Welch is launching his own offensive to defend himself against accusations that he slandered a pair of suburban attorneys. The claims made by Welch in his counter to a defamation lawsuit filed in August 2007 suggest a game of quid pro quo has been played with taxpayer funds in the Proviso Township high school district.
According to court records filed by Welch’s attorney, lawyers Burt Odelson and Mark Sterk conspired to squeeze the school board president in 2007 when they learned that their Evergreen Park firm was about to be fired as the school district’s counsel. At the time, officials in the district suspected Odelson and Sterk were overcharging the district, according to court records. In a series of court filings, Welch claims that Odelson and Sterk called Welch’s former employer, James Roche of the law firm James J. Roche and Associates, and asked that Welch be fired if the school board went ahead with the dismissal.
“Beginning Dec. 13, 2006, and monthly thereafter, officials at District 209 began questioning Odelson and Sterk’s legal bills,” attorneys for Welch stated in a January counterclaim. “Shortly after District 209 challenged Odelson and Sterk’s legal bills, Roche called Welch into his office to complain about the problems that Odelson and Sterk were having getting their legal bills approved by District 209.”
On May 21, 2007, the school board voted to terminate Odelson and Sterk. The following day, according to Welch’s countersuit, Roche fired Welch “in retaliation.”
Welch is suing the three alleged co-conspirators for an undetermined sum. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.
A phone call to Roche’s office was not returned, however, the attorney has denied in court any wrongdoing.
Welch’s claim that he was muscled out of his private sector job in part because of his position on the school board could be used as leverage in a tangential matter. In mid-June the school board voted to spend more than $22,400 of taxpayer funds in support of Welch’s legal defense in the defamation suit originally filed by Odelson and Sterk. That case was brought after Welch allegedly slandered the school district’s former attorneys on an Internet blog.
Welch and his codefendant in the case, Emily Robinson, allegedly posted the libelous statements anonymously using their office computers at Roche’s firm, according to court records. The suit filed against Welch does not name the school district as a party to the case, but a school administrator and district attorney supported Welch’s request for the funds.
“It is worth remembering that … board members are not compensated and that absent the sorts of protections against legal costs incurred from a board member’s conduct relative to their public position, few individuals would hold themselves for service on such school boards,” District 209 attorney Michael DeBartolo said in a written statement following the board’s June 16 vote to pay Welch’s bills.
Board members Theresa Kelly and Sue Henry voted not to approve the expense. Brian Cross abstained from the vote while the remaining members, including Welch, voted in favor.
Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart was hired by the board at the same June 16 meeting and officially took office July 1. In a telephone interview prior to the start of her tenure, Collins-Hart said she was not familiar with the issue beyond what she observed at the meeting.