The new legal counsel hired by Proviso Township High School District 209 lasted a little less than a month.
On Nov. 10, the board voted 4-3 to dismiss the firm Robbins Schwartz and attorney Anthony Bass. The board had hired both parties to represent the district a few weeks ago after a five-month search.
The move came after some board members started to question Bass’ ties to Proviso Township and other political figures. Voting to dismiss Robbins Schwartz and Bass were board Vice President Kevin McDermott and board members Brian Cross, Dan Adams and Theresa McKelvey. Board President Theresa Kelly and board members Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner voted against their removal.
A new board majority — which included Kelly, McDermott, Medina and Wagner — had vowed since April to replace the school district’s prior counsel, Del Galdo Law Group, whom they criticized for meddling in school board elections and for close ties to former board president Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who is now a state representative, and other Proviso politicians.
On Oct. 26, in an unusual arrangement, the D209 school board voted 5 to 1 to hire both the Robbins Schwartz law firm and attorney Anthony Bass of Grasso Bass PC.
Kelly called Robbins Schwartz “pioneers in school law” and said they represented 130 public school districts in Illinois.
She said attorney Bass, who is African American, was a lawyer who “identifies with the cultural makeup of our students.”
Before the board voted to reverse their October decision, audience members aired some complaints.
Former Forest Park commissioner and mayoral candidate Chris Harris told the board, “Seven months ago the people spoke,” Harris said. “Change spoke.”
Harris said the board should be “putting kids first, not the financiers of your campaigns.”
Former Thornton Township High School District 205 school board member Edward Crayton spoke in Bass’ defense, saying Bass had saved his district $2 million and had helped minority vendors receive contracts.
Grasso Bass P.C. and a partner firm were paid $502,000 by D205 in 2012-13, according to the Illinois State Board of Education website.
According to reports in the Northwest Indiana Times, Bass submitted a $7,500 bill to research a D205 superintendent’s qualifications and assisted board members in trying to oust then-D205 school board president Kenneth Williams based on a 1980s felony conviction.
According to D205 board minutes, Bass was fired by the district in May 2013 shortly after Williams was re-elected.
“I know serving on a divided board is most ungratifying,” Crayton said, adding that board members “insisted [Bass] break school and state policies.”
“When he refused, they wanted to put him on the agenda to dismiss him.”
Bill Hampton, brother of slain Maywood civil rights activist and Black Panther member Fred Hampton, said his own lawyer “spoke highly of Anthony Bass.”
“If you’re an honest black man [these days], you have a problem,” Hampton said. “I grew up on Fifth Avenue in Maywood, and it’s time for [African Americans] to get a part of it. Cut us in or cut it out. We are not out to take over anything. We are out to get our part.”
But McDermott and other board members got cold feet after further researching the combined Robbins Schwartz/Anthony Bass proposal.
Bass’ resume, obtained by the Forest Park Review, includes a stint as a Chicago Park District commissioner in the early 1990s. He also worked on former Cook County Board President John H. Stroger’s political campaign and served as “special counsel” for the Village of Harvey.
Bass also made campaign contributions between 2001 and 2007 to Proviso-area politicians. He donated $5,600 to the Community to Elect Eugene Moore political committee and $500 to the Regular Democratic Organization of Proviso Township, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections website.
Adams said Robbins Schwartz made “material misrepresentations” to the D209 board that Bass would not be the district’s lead attorney, but it was evident that he would be.
But Kelly said the real reason the new law firm was a target was because they were examining contracts.
“When I asked the new law firm to review contracts, the removal of the firm was put on the agenda,” Kelly said. “Administrator contracts, vendor contracts, a $5 million no-bid contract [to Restore Construction to rebuild after the Proviso East fire]. What are [other board members] hiding and who are they protecting to make them go through such great lengths?” Kelly said.
McDermott said, in an interview prior to the meeting, he also had problems with Robbins Schwartz. He was disturbed by one of the firm’s largest clients: The College of DuPage.
“I’m embarrassed to say, I didn’t do due diligence,” McDermott said.
Robbins Schwartz attorney Ken Florey served as a board member on the COD Foundation while his firm was a school vendor, according to the Chicago Tribune. He subsequently stepped down from the foundation.
Florey was the lawyer who oversaw the January 2015 College of DuPage board meeting where outgoing President Robert Breuder was awarded a $762,000 severance payment, according to the Daily Herald.
The decision was booed by some in the audience of 500 who attended. Robbins Schwartz was paid $1.6 million from College of DuPage during Breuder’s tenure, the Tribune said.
When he recognized the law firm’s name in online news stories, McDermott said he believed the board should reconsider its choice; Cross asked to put the item on the agenda.
“The best thing to do when you make a mistake is to fix it immediately,” McDermott said.
Medina and Wagner said at the board meeting they were frustrated that board members had weeks to research the law firms, and that some board members (but not McDermott) had not even bothered to fill out a rubric by which board members vetted law firm candidates or show up when the board voted 5-1 to choose a new firm.
When accused of trying to bring back longtime law firm Del Galdo Law Group, Cross and McDermott both said that would not happen.
Finally, after much debate, the board agreed to summon three other “finalist” law firms to a special meeting on Monday, Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Proviso Math and Science Academy, 8601 Roosevelt Road in Forest Park, for a second round of interviews.
The board also directed D209 Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart to inform Del Galdo Law Group that the firm was terminated as of Monday.