Web Extra! See taxpayers’ suit, evidence in Chris Welch’s defamation case
First reported 3/24/2009 2:28 p.m.
A group of township residents is asking a county judge to end District 209’s practice of paying legal fees on behalf of one of its school board members, arguing that board President Emanuel “Chris” Welch has no right to use taxpayer money in defending himself against a defamation suit filed in 2007.
The suit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court on March 23 by four taxpayers who had already petitioned the school board with their request.
Arbdella Patterson, Kevin McDermott and Carlos Anderson are each running for a seat on the school board and are plaintiffs in the case. The trio is joined by Donald Williams, who is the father of Rep. Karen Yarbrough (7th Dist.).
The defamation suit against Welch was filed by two attorneys, Burt Odelson and Mark Sterk, who previously provided legal services to the district. Odelson and Sterk were fired by the school board in 2007 and, shortly thereafter, Welch began publishing comments online about the attorneys. Odelson and Sterk are alleging those comments were defamatory. As part of the discovery process in that case, Welch has stated that he and a co-defendant, Emily Robinson, were solely responsible for the content of the blog where those statements were published.
The Web site used by Welch and Robinson is not affiliated with the school district. District 209 is not a defendant in that case, nor is any other school board member.
“The allegations in the defamation suit are directed against Welch in his personal capacity and not in his capacity as a member or president of the PTHS Dist. 209 Board,” Patterson and her co-plaintiffs said in their complaint. “At no time during the litigation in the defamation suit has Welch asserted that he is not liable for damages under the provisions of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act.”
Welch’s attorneys in the defamation case have been paid a total of $51,566.45 by the district, according to a Feb. 17 response from the school board’s attorneys to a Review request for details on those payments.
Welch has since filed a counterclaim against Odelson and Sterk, alleging they conspired with Welch’s former employer to have him fired from that job. The two cases have also snared employees in District 88 and court filings have shed new light on the political and financial relationships Welch has built from the president’s seat in District 209.
An attorney for the school district has advised board members that paying Welch’s legal bills in the defamation suit is appropriate. That attorney, Michael DeBartolo, has said public money will not be used to help Welch pursue his counterclaim.
More than $57,800 has been paid by the district to Welch’s attorneys. According to DeBartolo, Welch’s attorneys have since been brought in to do additional legal work for District 209. That work is unrelated to the Odelson case, he said.
After being provided with a copy of the taxpayers’ suit against District 209, DeBartolo did not return phone calls seeking comment on the case.
Patrick Deady is the attorney handling the taxpayers’ claim against the district, and said he sees the legal questions in play to be a “very narrow issue.” The facts of how Welch made the potentially libelous statements he did have been spelled out in the defamation case already, said Deady. Answering his clients’ complaint should simply be a matter of applying those facts to the state’s indemnification laws intended to protect public servants working in their official capacity.
“There really isn’t a lot more information required to answer the legal question,” Deady said.
Of course, filing a lawsuit against the school district and its board members will cost taxpayers additional legal fees as the school defends itself against the claim. One of the primary goals of the suit, said Deady, is to prevent Welch from using public money to settle the defamation case, or pay any damages a judge might order. His clients are looking for a relatively swift decision, he said, and hope that any attempt to prolong the argument is cutoff by the court.
“My clients are obviously cognizant of that,” Deady said.