Corporation counsel Mara Georges works for Chicago's taxpayers, of course. It's pretty to think that inside City Hall keeping us happy is everybody's job number one.
But seriously, who gets to give her orders? The Department of Law, which Georges oversees, is an "executive department of the municipal government"—to quote the municipal code. So Georges works for the city's top executive—the mayor who appointed her.
The City Council advises on and consents to that appointment, and the municipal code goes on to say that "the corporation counsel shall have authority, when directed by the city council, to make settlements of lawsuits and controverted claims against the city."
So Georges works for the City Council too, and when it says "settle" she's supposed to settle. How odd, then, that at the moment she won't even settle with the City Council.
The municipal code also directs the corporation counsel to "protect the rights and interests of the city in all actions, suits and proceedings brought by or against it or any city officer, board or department." That means Georges works for the police, to name the department whose chestnuts most frequently need to be pulled out of the fire.
And at the moment it's the police department she's defending in a high-profile, headline-making showdown with a majority of the City Council. These 28 aldermen want an unexpurgated list of police officers who over the past five years have had ten or more beefs made against them. It's a simple request—one branch of city government asking for information it's arguably entitled to get from another. But the mayor and acting police superintendent Dana Starks want those names kept under wraps—"These are only allegations. It's easy to criticize police," says Daley. So Georges keeps saying no.
"She has this notion she's the mayor's lawyer," says 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore.
The aldermen would have a stronger hand to play if they passed a resolution demanding those names as the full City Council, rather than doing it as 28 individuals. But that would put the council formally in Mayor Daley's face, and some aldermen, even among the 28, might not want to go that far.
This saga originated in a suit filed by a public housing tenant named Diane Bond that accused five police officers of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. During discovery, a variety of materials that the police department turned over to Bond, including the list of names of so-called rogue cops, was designated confidential. Last winter the two sides settled, and in March journalist-activist Jamie Kalven, who'd written a series of long articles championing Bond's cause on his Web site, petitioned federal judge Joan Lefkow to lift the protective order. If rogue cops are operating within the police department, he reasoned, the public is entitled to know who they are.
On July 2 Lefkow lifted her protective order. She didn't order either side to make the list public; she simply said they could do so if they wanted to. The city didn't want to release the names, and Bond's lawyer, Craig Futterman, wasn't given an opportunity to: Georges got a brief stay from Lefkow to give the city time to file an appeal, and then a longer stay from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals when it took up the matter.
Georges's petition to the Seventh Circuit asking for a stay pending appeal was the voice of sweet reason. "We are aware," concluded her 19-page petition, "that one reason Bond wants to be freed from the commitment...is to provide the material to members of the Chicago City Council before a vote [July 18] on an ordinance to overhaul CPD's Office of Professional Standards, which investigates allegations of police misconduct."
But that wasn't a problem. "The Aldermen do not need to sue CPO or the Law Department to obtain this information, nor do they have to obtain access to the materials from Futterman or Kalven. We have agreed to make the confidential documents available to any City Council member who requests them."
Those City Council members are still waiting. The only thing Georges has turned over to the aldermen was a list with all 662 names inked out.
On August 23, Alderman Toni Preckwinkle dropped Georges a line. "We are writing to request a fresh copy of the lists without the names of the officers redacted," she wrote. "Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter."
Georges replied on September 11. "These documents are the subject of a pending appeal that seeks to maintain their confidentiality," she explained. "And we wish to avoid any possibility that allowing them to be reviewed would affect that appeal. I hope you understand that I will, therefore, be unable to fulfill your request."
What Preckwinkle understood was that Georges had promised the appellate court it would do one thing in order to do another. Lawyers for the 28 aldermen visited Lefkow in court October 25 and asked the judge to tell Georges to keep her word and give them the list of names.
This was a long shot, and to no one's surprise, Lefkow said no. She said she lacked jurisdiction because the question of disclosing the names had moved on to the appellate court. But she added that unless the aldermen sued the city for the list (precisely what Georges had said in her appeal the aldermen had no need to do), any decision Georges made about sharing it with them was a political issue, not a legal one. "I don't have a dog in that fight," Lefkow said.
In other words, the question of whether one branch of city government shared the names with another was between those two branches. Georges had said as much when she told the appellate court she'd give the list to any alderman who asked. And the idea had been bruited about back on July 9, when the city asked Lefkow for a stay of her instruction lifting the protective order. Futterman, who had the names, told the judge, "A number of aldermen asked me about this very information and asked me about which units and which names, etc. And of course I said, 'I'd like to tell you, but your lawyer, your lawyer is actually fighting this, ironically.'"
And then Kalven's attorney, Jon Loevy, wondered, "Why would the aldermen—why would they be covered by the protective order at all? They could see it within this protective order. They are the city of Chicago."
The question came around to George Yamin, the attorney Georges had sent to the hearing to represent the city, and the transcript suggests what trouble he had shaping a reply. "You know, to represent the City of Chicago it is very ambiguous to say who are—you know, who wants—who our actual clients are. And I think it should be—we have—the relief we have asked for is not unreasonable."
"OK," said Lefkow. "Well, let me say this. I'll lift the protective order as to the city and the individual defendants. Now then, it becomes more or less a political issue. That is, you deal with these aldermen yourself. But you can't—you or Ms. Georges or whoever they speak to—can't say this is subject of a protective order because it isn't."
But Georges found another reason not to share with the aldermen. As she told Preckwinkle, she didn't want to influence the appeal.
It's not only the aldermen who want to see the uncensored list of 662 names. An amicus brief is now being prepared by representatives of the press, including the Reader, the Tribune the Sun-Times, the New York Times, the Copley, Lee, and Gannett chains, the Associated Press, and the Illinois Press Association, that will ask the panel of judges hearing the appeal to uphold Lefkow. The amicus brief will second what Lefkow wrote when she lifted her protective order: "The fact that the allegations of police misconduct contained in the requested materials would bring unwanted, negative attention on defendants is not a basis for shielding the materials from public disclosure. The public has a significant interest in monitoring the conduct of its police officers and a right to know how allegations of misconduct are being investigated and handled."
Reporters who have been trying for decades to investigate police corruption in Chicago will tell you the city's default response to allegations of misconduct is to circle the wagons.
Georges attended the October 25 hearing before Lefkow, and afterward she held an impromptu news conference in the lobby of the Dirksen Building. She was asked about all those hats she wears. "It's a balancing act," she allowed. She was asked why she wasn't representing the aldermen, and she said they'd chosen outside counsel—as though they'd had their chance with her but didn't take it.
The aldermen chose outside counsel after Georges said "I will" in court and "I won't" in her letter to Preckwinkle. But no, they hadn't considered asking Georges to represent them in their struggle to get city documents out of Georges, even though that would have made for a brilliantly efficient use of expensive legal resources. And what Jon Loevy calls a "bizarre, never before seen situation" would have gotten that much stranger.v
For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.