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Two Birds, One Stone

Why city officials refused to let Frank Coconate's lawyer into his predisciplinary hearing.

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Attorney Frank Avila has been battling the Hispanic arm of the Daley machine since 1997, filing lawsuits, holding press conferences, and giving tips to reporters. Last week City Hall officials exacted a bit of revenge, kicking him out of a client's disciplinary hearing. "We were following procedure--it's nothing personal," explains a City Hall press officer, then laughs. "Well, maybe a little."

The client was Frank Coconate, another big pain in the Daley administration's neck. For the past few years Coconate, a safety inspector in the water department, has been annoying city officials by, among other things, running for state representative on a platform opposing the O'Hare expansion, complaining publicly that Daley has overlooked hiring abuses and waste in the water department, and, perhaps his most unforgivable sin, drumming up support for a mayoral run by Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.

In some ways Coconate's struggle with the water department, where he's worked for 27 years, is the flip side of the patronage scandals that have been filling the papers for the past few weeks. Those stories are largely about the city hiring the politically well connected, even if they're incompetent, in violation of a federal decree. Coconate contends that the city fired him for his political activism.

The practice of using jobs to reward friends and punish enemies has long been a sore point with Avila, and much of his ire is directed at the Hispanic Democratic Organization, Daley's main political operation in the Hispanic wards. Mention HDO or its leaders--including former Streets and Sanitation commissioner Al Sanchez and former mayoral chief of staff Victor Reyes--and Avila will start spewing invective. Mention Daley and he'll rage that the mayor's stifled the development of Latino politics by supporting only "slaves happy to work on Massa Daley's political plantation." As he explains it, "In this model it's all top-down. Daley tells them you got to be against Meigs Field. You think Hispanics care about Meigs Field? But they go along. Even things against their people, like CTA cuts, Hispanic politicians have to get in line. You can't have an independent voice. You know what they call someone who votes with the mayor 99 percent of the time? Disloyal. That's absurd. That's not democracy."

In 2000 Avila successfully sued to have one Daley loyalist, 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis, bounced off the ballot in the race for state central committee of the Fourth Congressional District. (Avila established that Solis didn't live in the district.) In 2002 he successfully sued to have another Daley loyalist, state senator Martin Sandoval, removed from the ballot for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. He often represents activists who take on the city, including those who are too broke to pay legal fees, and he doesn't care whom they've associated with in the past. So it's not surprising that he's representing an organization regular turned renegade like Coconate.

According to Jenny Hoyle, a law department spokesperson, the city "initiated termination proceedings" against Coconate on July 13, suspending him from his $62,000-a-year job with pay. It charged him with several violations, including "falsifying the signatures of crew members in reports he submitted" and "falsifying reports regarding worksites he was supposed to inspect." Avila calls those allegations "a bunch of penny-ante charges trumped up by the city to punish Frank for speaking up."

On July 20 the water department held a predisciplinary hearing before its commissioner, Brian Murphy. "That's an opportunity for an employee to meet with the commissioner and to address the charges against him," says Hoyle. "The employee can present any evidence they want." She adds that after hearing testimony and reviewing the evidence, the commissioner can side with the employee or fire him, and the employee can then appeal the commissioner's decision to the city's Personnel Board, which happens to be appointed by the mayor.

Avila says Coconate asked him to attend the hearing. (Coconate didn't return my calls.) "It was at the water management building at Pershing and Iron, on the south side," he says. "Brian Murphy and one of the city's lawyers was standing in the hall when I got there." He says he doesn't know Murphy, but he figures Murphy knew who he was because he's well-known around City Hall and his name is on Coconate's Web site. "I said, 'I'm Frank Avila. I'm here to represent Frank Coconate.' I had a response to their charges. I tried to show it to her [the lawyer]. I said, 'Here, take it.' She wouldn't take the response."

Avila says Murphy then asked him to leave the building. "He said only union representatives are allowed here. I said, 'I talked to Frank's union. The union told me I could come.' Murphy just said, 'You have to leave.'"

At that point, Avila says, several police officers approached him. "They were polite about it, but they were insistent. They said, 'You have to leave--take it outside.' The department had this other guy--this big weight-lifter type with tattoos on his forearms--hanging around. He was standing there sending his tough-guy don't-mess-with-me message." Avila got the message.

"After they kicked me out, I called corporation counsel Mara Georges on my cell phone, and she said only the union gets to go to the hearing," Avila says. "They're acting like this is some sacred and objective hearing. Give me a break. This whole thing's political. And they want Frank to walk in there unprotected? Frank doesn't trust the union--he wants me to represent him."

Hoyle insists Murphy had the right to bar Avila from the hearing. "This is a process set up under the collective-bargaining agreement," she says. "Employees are entitled to union representation at a predisciplinary hearing. Mr. Avila is not a representative of the union, so he can't be at the hearing."

Carol James, secretary-treasurer of Laborers Local 1092, Coconate's union, confirms this point. "Mr. Avila may not believe it," she says, "but the city was within its rights." She does acknowledge that the union didn't object to his being there.

Activists from other unions say they don't blame Coconate for wanting his own lawyer at the hearing. George Schmidt, who was fired from his job as a high school English teacher after writing articles critical of the system's standardized tests, says he would never walk into "any kind of disciplinary hearing without my own lawyer present." He recalls a hearing years ago when school board officials "tried to order my lawyer to leave. But I said, 'Oh no. He's going to be here.' And he stayed." Pat Hill, a police officer who's had her fair share of disciplinary hearings, says, "I've always been able to do what I want regarding attorneys. If you think they're coming after you for speaking up, you never go into a room with the city--for anything--without your lawyer. No way. I can't believe that union agreed to that stipulation."

Coconate refused to go to the hearing without Avila, and no union representative showed up, since he'd refused to work with the union after he was suspended. So no evidence was presented on his behalf. Murphy and a city lawyer went through the evidence other city lawyers had presented, and on Monday Coconate heard that he'd been fired.

Coconate has every intention of appealing that decision to the Personnel Board. That means Avila will get another chance to take on Murphy and the city's lawyers.

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