In an expanding war of words being waged online and in court, District 209 school board President Chris Welch won a temporary restraining order against a Forest Park man, forcing him to remove allegedly slanderous material from an Internet site.
The judge’s July 16 ruling was handed down just two days after Welch filed a lawsuit against Carl Nyberg, claiming that he is the victim of libelous statements posted on Nyberg’s blog. Welch, who is being sued by the school district’s former attorneys for slander, filed the paperwork with the Cook County Circuit Court.
According to Welch’s suit, Nyberg acted with “malice, evil motive and with an intent to injure” when he accused the school board president of being a “co-conspirator” in an “illegal kickback scheme.” In January, Welch filed a counterclaim against Burt Odelson and Mark Sterk, former attorneys for the district, alleging that they conspired with Welch’s former employer to have him fired from a Chicago law firm. That move, according to the January suit, came after Welch failed to persuade school board members to pay bills submitted to the district by Odelson and Sterk.
During a recent telephone interview, Nyberg did not shy away from his allegations that Welch was taking kickbacks. Moreover, Nyberg said the suit against him is simply a bullying tactic that Welch has employed on numerous occasions in the past.
“This is not a legitimate defamation suit,” Nyberg said. “If Chris wants his reputation to improve, then he should improve his behavior.”
Nyberg maintains a blog devoted largely to politics in Proviso Township and has been a fervent critic of Welch. Nyberg posted his allegations of Welch’s criminal behavior July 2 as part of a commentary regarding a June 16 vote by the school board to pay $22,400 in legal bills submitted to the district by Welch.
Welch accrued the bills defending himself against the defamation suit filed in August 2007 by the district’s former attorneys. The claim lodged by Odelson and Sterk does not name the school district as a party to the case. Welch is accused of making his allegedly slanderous statements via an anonymous post on another blog devoted to Proviso politics.
Welch did not return phone calls seeking comment on his suit against Nyberg, but his attorney, Travis Richardson of Richardson and Mackoff, said Welch attempted to avoid taking the matter to court. A series of e-mails exchanged by Nyberg and Richardson – at Welch’s direction, according to the attorney, – included requests that Nyberg remove the statements from the Web site.
“If Mr. Nyberg had not defamed Mr. Welch then we would not have brought this action,” Richardson said. “We gave Mr. Nyberg every opportunity to remove these defamatory statements.”
This is not the first time Nyberg has been taken to court by the school board president. In September 2005 both Welch and his brother, Bill Welch, filed a pair of claims against Nyberg alleging defamation of character. That case also involved statements posted on Nyberg’s blog. The suits were later dropped.
Richardson and his law firm are also representing Welch in the defamation suit filed by Odelson and Sterk. The $22,400 paid by the school district in June went to Richardson’s firm. According to Richardson, Welch does not intend to seek reimbursement from the district for his claim against Nyberg.
At a July 21 District 209 school board meeting, Welch read from a prepared statement summarizing his case against Nyberg. He said that he will not ask the district to pay his legal expenses in the case. Welch also vowed to pursue the case to its end, and said he will not hesitate to file a similar claim against any one else who harms his reputation.
Both partners Richardson and Myron Mackoff attended the board meeting and met with the elected officials in closed session. Richardson and Mackoff said they are not employed by the district.
District 209’s attorney Michael DeBartolo said that in light of the controversy surrounding the fees paid on Welch’s behalf in the Odelson and Sterk case, he has provided the school board with a set of procedures to ensure that public funds are used properly. DeBartolo declined to provide a copy of those procedures without first obtaining the board’s permission.
Those measures are simply a recommendation regarding procedure – not policy, said DeBartolo – meaning the board can choose to follow the guidelines without publicly disclosing the procedure.
As a point of clarification, DeBartolo said the $22,400 paid by the district does not cover any of Welch’s expenses for the counterclaim filed by the school board president in January. The money expressly pays for Welch’s defense in the Odelson and Sterk case. The school district’s attorney said he does not believe taxpayers will be asked to pick up the tab for the Nyberg case.
“I would assume that this lawsuit with Carl is also being handled by Welch,” DeBartolo said.