A lawsuit demanding that more than $50,000 in legal fees be returned to Proviso high schools has had at least a chilling effect on whether more money will be diverted from classrooms and toward attorneys.
Between December 2007 and October 2008, school board members voted to pay $51,566 to a Chicago firm representing board President Chris Welch in a defamation suit filed against him. However, the district is no longer paying those bills and will not resume doing so unless a judge rules that taxpayers are in fact responsible for Welch’s legal defense.
In late March, a group of township taxpayers asked a county judge to determine whether Welch can rightfully seek shelter under the state’s indemnification laws for supposedly slanderous statements he made on a Web site. Welch has maintained that because his status as a school board member applies 24 hours a day, so should the protections granted to public officials. The taxpayers’ lawsuit, however, argues that Welch’s privately maintained blog is unrelated to his duties as a school board member.
“Everyone wants to do what’s right,” Welch said of the tangled web of litigation and public funds. “I believe what we were doing was right. There’s nothing to hide.”
Neither the school district nor the school board has been named a defendant in Welch’s defamation case, and the site on which the statements were published is not affiliated with District 209. Evidence in that case indicates Welch maintained the site from his place of employment with a Chicago law firm.
Welch has denied that he defamed anyone with the online postings, and has filed a countersuit alleging that a political kickback scheme led to his wrongful termination from the Chicago law firm where he worked.
A financial oversight panel assembled by the Illinois State Board of Education began working with Proviso high schools in January to try and bring solvency to the district. Welch said that in anticipation of working with that panel he instructed his attorneys to stop submitting invoices to the school district.
“I wanted to get their guidance,” Welch said of the panel members.
Shortly thereafter, the lawsuit challenging whether public money was being misspent was filed. Jim Popernik is the chairman of the financial oversight panel. He said the district is no longer “processing” any of Welch’s legal fees because of the taxpayers’ suit.
“I think everybody’s on the same page – the board, the administrators and the [financial oversight panel] – that because there is this legal proceeding none of the bills should be paid,” Popernik said.
Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. A spokeswoman for the district referred questions to Welch.
Attorney Patrick Deady is handling the plaintiffs’ claim that Welch must pay for his own defense. In April, he said, the judge approved an agreement between the parties to hold off paying any bills in the defamation suit until there is a ruling on the taxpayers’ complaint. Without that agreement, said Deady, his clients likely would have sought an emergency injunction.
A significant component of the taxpayers’ suit is to prevent any settlement or damages that may be awarded in the defamation case from being paid with public funds. Deady said his clients are also asking that the $51,566 that has already been paid be returned to the district.
Meanwhile, Welch’s attorneys are still working on his behalf. Those bills will be set aside until the court decides who’s responsible for paying them.
“Either the invoices will be submitted to the district, or those bills will be submitted to Chris Welch,” Welch said, speaking in the third person.
Adding an odd twist to the legal wrangling is Kevin McDermott’s victory on April 7 that secured him a seat on the school board. McDermott was one of four taxpayers who filed the suit demanding that the district stop paying Welch’s legal bills. Both McDermott and Deady have said that McDermott will withdraw as a plaintiff in the case now that he is a sitting board member.