Hurry up and wait | Bleader

Hurry up and wait

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Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle has been lobbying the Daley administration for years to stop fighting and settle several lawsuits filed over the torture of black men by former police commander Jon Burge and his underlings. For a few days this week, she thought it was finally going to happen.

Why it hasn’t yet is—what else?—a matter of dispute.

Last Friday the city announced it had agreed to settle the cases of four torture victims for $19.8 million, and Monday the City Council’s finance committee approved the payments. Mara Georges, the city’s top attorney, told the finance committee that one of the plaintiffs, Stanley Howard, needed to sign a release form to finalize his portion of the agreement, but otherwise everything was set to go.

So Preckwinkle was shocked to show up for Wednesday’s full council meeting and get the news that the city had called the settlements off, at least for the time being.

On the council floor, finance chair Ed Burke explained that Howard had indeed signed the release form he needed to, but not before he’d added a new last-minute condition. In addition, the lawyer for plaintiff Aaron Patterson hadn’t presented a document showing he had power of attorney. For both reasons, the city would need more time, and the council would hold off on a vote until at least January.

“Along with many of my other colleagues, we were anxious to vote on this today,” Preckwinkle said after Burke was done. “It should be as clear as we can possibly make it that this [delay] is not the result of city action in any way.”

At a press conference after the meeting Georges made the same point repeatedly. She said Frank Avila, Patterson’s attorney, had produced a document empowering him to settle for at least $5.2 million, but not $5 million, the amount the city had agreed to.

The Howard snag was a separate issue. Howard was pardoned by former governor George Ryan for a murder charge that once put him on death row, but he remains in prison downstate for rape. Georges said Howard’s attorneys had sent the city a release form Tuesday night with a new settlement term written on it by hand: “This release does not bar any future claims that may arise in connection with his separate rape convictions.” Howard had initialed the document.

“On those terms, we did not feel we could settle with that plaintiff,” she said. She added that the city would be bringing U.S. district court judge Marvin Aspen into further discussions but didn’t anticipate the problem would scuttle the settlements altogether. “We have talked with opposing counsel, which understands our position,” Georges said. “I think everyone had hoped these settlements would be able to proceed today.”

Georges also said that she wouldn’t normally bring a settlement before the finance committee until all the signatures were in place. “But I suppose in my haste to get this resolved I didn’t require all the signatures at that time.”

Several reporters wondered why the city was so eager to settle the cases now, after not doing so for years. “There are a lot of different reasons for settling cases,” Georges said. Among them, she said, was the fact that Judge Aspen had told her the city might win one, even two or three, of the cases, but they were unlikely to win all of them. Also, by settling these four cases at the same time, the city could count on insurance to cover a big chunk of the tab.

In addition, she said, “I heard the message from the aldermen, which they delivered to me very loudly and clearly on many occasions, that they wanted to get these cases settled, and I have been working diligently to get that done.”

The message from the council and the administration was clear. “The plaintiff’s attorneys need to get their acts together,” Preckwinkle said.

But at least some of the attorneys say the city is simply resorting to a tired old routine of its own built on false promises and delays.

Avila on Wednesday held a screaming press conference accusing the city (as well as other plaintiffs’ attorneys) of stalling and trying to cheat Patterson out of his settlement money. He didn’t produce the document the city said he needed, but Avila said it wasn’t necessary and threatened to bow out of the agreement and ask for $10 million for his client alone.

And in an interview Thursday, Kurt Feuer, an attorney with the civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy, which represents Howard and plaintiff Madison Hobley, disputed many of Georges’ contentions, calling the city’s actions Wednesday “trifling” and “bizarre.”

“It’s like killing an insect with a nuclear bomb,” he said.

Feuer said the city had been fighting for weeks over even minor wording in the settlements until agreeing Sunday afternoon to language proposed earlier by the plaintiffs' lawyers. Once the agreement was reached, attorneys struggled to reach Howard at the Western Illinois Correctional Center to get his consent. On Tuesday, with the help of prison officials who bent a few rules, they got him a fax of the agreement and permission to call them. “When we finally got a hold of Stanley, he had some concerns,” Feuer said. So Feuer added the line, in pen, about Howard reserving the right to sue over his rape convictions.

Feuer said that should have only clarified, and not changed, the scope of the settlement, which focuses on Howard’s false murder conviction. Howard can neither sue nor give up his right to sue over the rape convictions unless evidence surfaces to show a problem with them, according to Feuer. “Maybe we’re guilty of overlawyering a bit,” he said. “But this is like putting a penny on the railroad track and watching the train crash.”

Even if Georges had problems with Howard’s addition, she could have allowed the council to vote on the settlement payments and then worked with the plaintiffs’ attorneys and Judge Aspen to tinker with the final language, Feuer said. “The amount of the payment’s not in dispute, and that’s all the council’s signing off on,” he said. “It’s not a big deal at all.”

The city insists it is. “We believe it materially changes the agreement,” law department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle reiterated Thursday. “It was something we received at the very last minute. We didn’t get a call saying it was there. It was a surprise to us. It is absolutely not commonplace in an agreement like this to pencil in something at the last minute.”

Both Feuer and Hoyle said their offices want to work something out and should be able to keep the other settlement terms in place. But that’s assuming Avila doesn’t stick to his vow to raise Patterson’s settlement price.

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