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Framed: CHA maintenance man's reputation cleanup



When the CHA found aluminum frames being stolen off windows at the Robert Taylor Homes five years ago, it accused David Coleman, a 38-year-old CHA maintenance supervisor, of the thefts. On April 29, 1989, CHA chairman Vince Lane, having interrogated Coleman in a police cell, announced that he'd identified the "tip of the iceberg" of a burglary ring responsible for stealing millions of dollars' worth of equipment and supplies. The CHA fired Coleman and prosecuted him on charges of theft and official misconduct, offenses that can bring a 40-year jail sentence.

There was only one hitch: Coleman didn't steal the aluminum. The case against him was so flimsy it fell apart at a touch. He was acquitted by a county judge and vindicated by a federal jury. And still the CHA refused to reinstate him, forcing him to sue for back wages and his old job. The case is now well into its third year, costing the public far more in lawyers' fees than the stolen merchandise was worth.

"At first I thought this whole thing was a joke," says Coleman. "But this is no joke, this is real. They're coming after me hard, and I still don't know why."

Coleman's troubles began on April 27, 1989, when two Robert Taylor Homes janitors caught someone trying to steal some aluminum frames off the windows. Thefts like this are a recurring problem at CHA complexes; trimming, fixtures, and other supplies are routinely stolen and sold for scrap. This time the thief ran off, leaving behind a rickety grocery cart with wobbly wheels filled with nine bundles of dented aluminum strips.

The cart was brought to building headquarters. Coleman's immediate supervisor, Clarence Brooks, called the police. They came, and Coleman signed the police report. According to Coleman, Brooks said in the presence of at least six witnesses that "he was going to send the junk to a scrap yard because he didn't want it cluttering things up."

Two days later, Brooks asked Willie Mays, a friend of his and Coleman's, to take the aluminum to a junkyard shredder, says Coleman. "I told Willie he could take the scrap over in my truck." Brooks opened the heavy metal door to the garage where the cart had been stored, Mays drove the truck in, the three men loaded the scrap and the cart onto the truck, and Mays drove it away, says Coleman. About two hours later the police arrived.

"The funny thing is I had called the police that very day to report another break-in," says Coleman. "When the police showed up I said something like: 'Man, it's about time you guys got here.' They said: 'You're under arrest for stealing CHA property.'"

Brooks, who could not be reached for comment, told police that he never asked Mays or Coleman to take the aluminum to a scrap yard and that he didn't know they had done so. Coleman says Brooks is lying; he believes Brooks made up his story because he was panicked at the police's arrival. Coleman and Brooks were taken to the police station at 51st and Wentworth, as was Mays, who had been arrested at a scrap yard at 22nd and Halsted.

Several hours later Lane, in the middle of a crackdown on all the thefts of CHA property, which he believed to be inside jobs, arrived at Coleman's jail cell. It was a bizarre encounter. "I had my hand cuffed to a ring on the wall, and here's Vince Lane and his entourage of drivers and aides," says Coleman. "They were acting like I was part of a ring of thieves who had taken all these refrigerators and stoves, and I didn't know what they were talking about. Remember, I was the guy who signed the police report in the first place." Coleman told Lane he didn't do it. "Lane said: 'Coleman, I don't believe you.' The thing that really got him was that Willie was driving my truck. He couldn't believe that I would lend a man my truck. I said, 'Willie was a friend; if you were my friend I'd give you my truck.' He said I was suspended pending investigation and that he would request my termination. He said: 'I hate a thief,' and that I was using this material for some outside job and that all these people stealing the aluminum were working for me. Then he asked if my wife was living in the CHA. I said that she did, but I didn't--we were separated then; we've since got back together. He said, 'I'm going to have your family evicted.'

"That's when I got angry. What does my family have to do with this? I told the guard, 'Get his ass out of my cell.'" Lane publicized the arrests, which were reported in the Tribune and Sun-Times.

On September 19 Coleman's case was heard by a Cook County Circuit Court judge. "Brooks didn't testify at my trial and I don't know why," says Coleman. The main evidence against him was the cops' testimony that they saw him loading the truck. "The judge found me not guilty of all charges."

But his troubles were far from over. He had no job or income, and eight children to support. "It's not easy finding a job when they ask you 'What was your last job?' and you have to say, 'I got fired from the CHA after they accused me of stealing.' I looked for work, but no one wanted to hire me. Besides, I wanted to go back to the CHA."

For the next two years Coleman called the CHA nearly every week asking for his job back. He contacted a lawyer, but decided not to retain him after he says a CHA official told him "We can't even talk to you until you get rid of your lawyer."

On April 19, 1990, he wrote Lane a five-page letter detailing the specifics of his case and asking the chairman to "look into this matter with an open mind." On May 21 Lane wrote a three-paragraph response, informing Coleman that he had forwarded the facts of his case to the acting director of the CHA's Human Resources Department "for her review and follow-up."

By October a personnel requisition had been approved recommending that Coleman be hired for a supervisory maintenance job at Rockwell Gardens. But the job never came through, and by the summer of 1991 Coleman had hired Jeff Smith, a lawyer with the Skokie firm of Engelman & Smith.

Smith attempted to initiate settlement negotiations, but the CHA refused to negotiate. On April 21, 1992, Coleman filed a federal lawsuit, charging that Lane and the agency had "acted recklessly" in "causing [him] to be fired without hearing, stigmatized by the label of thief, and prevented from further employment with the CHA."

The CHA hired Rivkin Radler & Kremer, a LaSalle Street law firm, and filed a federal suit against Coleman, seeking $50,000 and charging him with the misappropriation of CHA property and misperformance of duties. "That countersuit was harassment," says Smith. "What's the point of going after an unemployed janitor?"

The countersuit was dismissed by a federal judge, but pretrial motions in Coleman's suit dragged on for months. Just before it was scheduled to go to trial, the CHA replaced Rivkin Radler & Kremer with Greene & Letts, another LaSalle Street firm. The case was finally tried last November. The CHA based its shaky case on Brooks's testimony that Coleman had acted on his own in loading the truck.

Coleman's lawyer argued that any routine investigation would have immediately cleared Coleman of all charges. "Our argument was that this whole thing was a bungled investigation and that the extent of David's involvement was to load a shopping cart onto a truck," says Smith. "They told reporters that Willie Mays sold the material, but we had the scrap yard operator ready to testify that no sale was ever made. Their case against Coleman was based on Brooks. He testified that he didn't even know the aluminum was ever loaded on the truck. Brooks testified that he was sitting at his desk in the garage 15 feet away, but he didn't hear the big metal door go up, he didn't hear the truck back in, and he didn't hear the cart get loaded. To refute Brooks, we called two CHA employees and a tenant, who testified that they heard Brooks say he wanted the aluminum sent to the shredder."

Smith and other observers, assuming Lane was the one blocking Coleman's reinstatement, expected the CHA chairman to provide some dramatic testimony. But Lane testified that he had only a hazy recollection of Coleman or his case, even though it was the only time he had ever been to a jail cell to question an arrested employee. "I asked Lane if he had ever seen the aluminum that had been stolen, and he said no," says Smith. "I said, 'Would you be interested in seeing it now?' He said, 'Yes.' So I wheeled in this old shopping cart with the wobbly wheels and the 15 dollars' worth of crummy aluminum strips. It looked ridiculous."

On the day before Thanksgiving, the jury cleared Vince Lane but not the CHA, ordering the agency to award Coleman $155,000 in damages. In May the presiding judge ordered the CHA to reinstate Coleman. But when Coleman reported to a CHA personnel office he was told he couldn't be rehired. The CHA had replaced Greene & Letts with Gessler Flynn Fleischmann Hughes & Socol, yet another downtown law firm, which was filing a motion to overturn the decision on the grounds that it was "inconsistent" of the jury to clear Lane but not the CHA and that, in any event, the statute of limitations had expired by the time Coleman filed his suit.

The CHA's latest lawyers say Coleman shouldn't necessarily be rehired just because he was found not guilty of the charges for which he was originally fired. "The criminal case [was] resolved because the court concluded that the state did not prove [Coleman] had committed theft beyond a reasonable doubt," says Jonathan Rothstein of Gessler et al. "That doesn't mean an agency's decision to rehire will be bound to that same standard of proof."

Neither Rothstein nor Smith has any idea when the case might be resolved. Meanwhile, a couple of CHA players key to Coleman's saga recently stepped down in the wake of the recent controversy over the mishandling of millions of dollars in pension funds. "Isn't that something," says Coleman. "While they were wasting their time and money on me and a few strips of junk, someone else was robbing the pension fund blind."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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