Since June 2008, District 209 has paid $51,566 in legal fees defending its school board president, Chris Welch, in an ongoing defamation lawsuit that was filed back in 2007 by Chicago attorneys Burt Odelson and Mark Sterk.
That case is ongoing, but last month D209, following the approval of its state-appointed financial oversight panel, settled another suit that Proviso residents filed in 2009 in an effort to stop the board from paying Welch’s legal fees. According to the agreement, dubbed “the Donald Williams settlement,” D209’s insurance carrier will pay the remaining plaintiff, Donald Williams (father of state Rep. Karen Yarbrough, 7th District), $20,000. As part of the deal, district dollars may also be used to pay or reimburse Welch for an additional $27,885 in legal fees he racked up defending himself in the Odelson and Sterk case. Although the agreement was reached last month, a copy was only made available to the Forest Park Review last week – by a Proviso resident.
The Review requested a copy of the Williams settlement, along with other documents, on Aug. 9 through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process. On Aug. 17, D209 Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart sent a response asking for more time to fill the request. On Aug. 23, D209 suggested that the Review narrow its “voluminous” request (nine questions asking for specific documents). D209 still has not provided any information.
In that time, the Review contacted the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, and on Sept. 14, a representative sent D209 a letter asking it to explain why the request was too much of a “burden” to fill, as Collins-Hart had suggested in her Aug. 23 note.
Since then, some information was provided to the newspaper by Princess Dempsey, a resident of Broadview.
Dempsey submitted a FOIA request “on or about Aug. 29,” according to D209, and on Sept. 13, she received everything she asked for. D209 gave her over 100 legal documents (mostly complaints and settlements). One of the settlements she received was “the Donald Williams settlement.”
According to D209 spokeswoman TaQuoya Kennedy, the district could not turn over the Donald Williams settlement to the Review because it was not signed by the board until Aug. 27 and thus not official at the time it was requested. Dempsey, on the other hand, submitted her request after the settlement had been signed, Kennedy explained, which is why she received it. There was no explanation of this in the Aug. 23 letter D209 sent the Review. The Review’s request was considered “voluminous,” but Dempsey asked for eight years’ worth of settlements, as well as pending settlements and lawsuits.
“I began to look at these things to see what’s going on,” said Dempsey, when asked about the Donald Williams suit. “Why are we paying for Chris Welch’s [legal] expenses? Nobody’s holding him responsible.”
The Williams settlement stemmed from a 2009 lawsuit filed by Williams and several other Proviso Township residents, who sued the D209 board for approving the use of tens of thousands of dollars to pay for Welch’s legal fees in the Odelson and Sterk case. In that still-pending suit, Welch is accused of having made defamatory comments about attorneys Odelson and Sterk on the Proviso Insider blog (proviso insider.blogspot.com).
The suit, filed to prevent the use of district money on litigation, led to a settlement that could result in payments of $27,885 for Welch’s additional legal fees, stemming from the defamation suit. The plaintiffs’ suit tried to halt the board from spending money on Welch’s lawyers, and to get Welch to reimburse D209 for money already spent. Instead, the settlement OKed the $51,566 in district funds already paid to his lawyers.
According to the settlement, Welch has spent $40,680 of his own money on lawyers in the Odelson and Sterk case.
Williams did not return a call for comment, and Sterk could not comment on the matter by press time.
“The board votes what Chris votes,” said Dempsey of the board’s decision to approve those fees. “Chris is the board.”
Dempsey is a Proviso West alumnus and a community organizer in Proviso Township. Her quest for information regarding matters of litigation could have been prompted by her stated desire to run for the state’s 7th District House seat in 2012, an office Welch has said he might pursue if incumbent Karen Yarbrough does not seek re-election. Dempsey ran unsuccessfully against Yarbrough as an independent in the 2010 race.
Either way, Dempsey said the “politricks” on the D209 board and throughout Proviso Township need to end.
“We need to start holding people accountable,” she said.