Several attempts to bill Proviso Township taxpayers for possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation costs involving Proviso District 209 School Board President Chris Welch were squashed by a state-appointed financial oversight panel, last week.
In October, the D209 school board approved nearly $40,000 in payments to two law firms whose lawyers defended Welch after he was personally sued for defamation of character by big name Chicagoland attorneys Mark Sterk and Burt Odelson, in 2007. This month, the school board tried to put an end to that lawsuit by approving a proposed settlement between Welch and the two plaintiffs. That agreement, according to multiple sources familiar with the deal (all who asked for anonymity), would have seen Proviso taxpayers shell out some $400,000 to end Welch’s legal woes.
But, at its Nov. 22 meeting, the state of Illinois’ financial oversight panel rejected the school board’s effort to use district funds to pay Welch’s lawyers and to settle the lawsuit.
The oversight panel did not approve a $10,757 payment to the Cozen O’Connor law firm, or a $27,885 fee that is owed to Chicago-based Richardson & Mackoff, LLC. Both firms represented Welch, individually, in the defamation-of-character case. A settlement related to the Odelson and Sterk suit, which came to be known as “The Don Williams Settlement,” stipulates that district money can be used to pay these bills.
As for the proposed settlement between Welch, and Odelson and Sterk, the oversight panel essentially overruled the board’s decision to use district money to end the legal spat.
Oversight panel members declined to comment on these decisions, as did an attorney from the Illinois State Board of Education who discussed the matter with them in closed session.
Currently, the Forest Park Review does not have a copy of the settlement; the newspaper submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, and is awaiting an official response from D209.
According to sources with knowledge of the deal, the proposed agreement would have paid out roughly $400,000 to Odelson and Sterk. This, according to Welch’s lawyers would have been less expensive than going to trial, which, his attorney argued could cost the district more money. This was argued, even though the district is not named in the lawsuit.
The Review asked TaQuoya Kennedy, the district’s spokesperson, multiple questions about the lawsuit, the settlement, and what the district plans to do moving forward, but she said D209 refused to comment, because the matter is still pending.
It is not known how Welch intends to deal with the oversight panel’s decision, either; he was not at last week’s meeting and he did not return a call for comment.
As a result of the decision, the suit continues, and payments are still owed to Welch’s lawyers.
During the public comment portion of the oversight panel meeting, Princess Dempsey, a Broadview resident and a Proviso activist, suggested, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, that Welch dip into his campaign committee’s funds to pay his legal bills. (He cannot do this, legally.)
Welch has filed paperwork to run for the state’s 7th District House seat in 2012 and has done a considerable amount of fundraising. Dempsey is also an official candidate for that office.
During her comment, Dempsey blasted the D209 board for approving both the payments to Welch’s lawyers, and the use of district money for the proposed settlement.
“We [Proviso taxpayers] are not responsible for paying a board member’s personal legal fees,” Dempsey said. “These are resources that should go to books and technology.”
“It’s an embarrassment,” she added. “Taxpayers are watching you [D209 board] … we cannot see another child suffer.”
Regardless of what happens next the oversight panel’s decision last week was a victory for those Proviso taxpayers and activists who have, for years, decried the use of district funds to pay for Welch’s attorneys and other litigation D209 has been involved with. The district has already paid at least $51,566 to support Welch’s defense in the Odelson and Sterk case.
Della Patterson is a Maywood resident who was once part of a class-action suit against the D209 board and Welch that sought to prevent the use of district money to pay for Welch’s defense in the Odelson and Sterk case.
She dropped out of that case (the one that came to be known as “The Don Williams Settlement”) for personal reasons, but she called the oversight panel’s decision “a step in the right direction.”
“It’s time that someone stepped up and said, enough is enough,” Patterson said. “It’s a small victory.”