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Former governor, White Sox chairman named in wrongful firing suit

Updated: April 17, 2013 11:58AM

A former head of the public agency overseeing U.S. Cellular Field is suing White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and former Gov. Jim Thompson, alleging the two conspired to fire her after she tried to end long-standing practices that boosted White Sox revenue at the expense of the public.

Perri Irmer, former executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, said she was fired in April of 2011 after contacting public officials, to warn them of “problems” at the ISFA, according to the suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court.

Reinsdorf and Thompson “sought to silence Perri Irmer and to stifle her efforts to protect Illinois taxpayers from Reinsdorf’s greed,” the suit alleges.

Irmer is seeking unspecified compensation because the firing damaged her personal and professional reputation and resulted in a loss of income, according to the suit. The White Sox organization is not named as a defendant.

The ISFA, created by the Illinois General Assembly in 1987 with then-Gov. Thompson’s backing, was formed after Reinsdorf threatened to move the White Sox to Florida unless a new publicly financed stadium was built.

Thompson — described as a Reinsdorf’s “lackey” in the court filing — became chairman of the ISFA board in 2005 and filled other leadership roles after his tenure on the board. Members of the ISFA board are appointed by the mayor of Chicago and the governor.

“The highly favorable terms granted to the White Sox in 1988 and intended to last until at least 2029 served to create a sense of entitlement on the part of White Sox Chairman Reinsdorf, who has repeatedly acted as though Cellular Field was a gift by the Illinois taxpayers to Reinsdorf and his team,” Irmer claimed in the suit.

A spokesman for Reinsdorf dismissed the lawsuit as “totally without merit,” but refused further comment citing the pending lawsuit.

Thompson’s legendary arm-twisting on the floor of the Illinois General Assembly staved off a threatened Sox move to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1988 — and only after the clock was stopped to allow the lobbying to continue past a midnight deadline.

But the former governor insisted Wednesday that Irmer’s allegations about a “conspiracy” between himself and Reinsdorf to move Irmer out of the way to benefit the Sox was patently untrue.

“It’s false. In all ways, it’s just false. Anybody with a filing fee can file a lawsuit. That doesn’t make it true,” Thompson said.

“Did she ever say that at the time it was going on? I don’t recall it. The allegations are false and we’ll answer them in court. That’s all I can tell you. Otherwise, my lawyers will be yelling at me. I can’t try the case in the newspaper. I have to respect the judge and let him decide.”

Pressed to explain why Irmer was fired if not to benefit the Sox, Thompson said, “Because the board wanted a different director.” He refused to elaborate, saying, “That will all come out in court.”

The lawsuit seeks to portray Thompson’s actions as chairman of the stadium authority board, almost as a continuation of his 1988 role as the governor who saved the team from becoming the St. Petersburg White Sox.

But Thompson said Wednesday, “What I did on the floor was in my capacity as governor to pass legislation. You wouldn’t call that a conspiracy, would you?”

Since its creation, the stadium authority board has used public money to build U.S. Cellular Field, construct the Bacardi at the Park restaurant and undertake renovations of the stadium, the suit alleges.

However, despite the influx of public funding, the White Sox organization has kept most of the revenue, the suit contends.

For example, the White Sox used U.S. Cellular Field rent-free until an agreement was inked in 2008 to pay the ISFA $1.2 million a year, according to the suit. Irmer claims she led that reform despite Reinsdorf’s opposition.

Thompson and Reinsdorf also bristled after Irmer trimmed back a renovation project by several million dollars, Irmer claims. The funding was later restored once she was fired, the suit alleges.

And efforts to develop ISFA lands around the ballpark were also opposed by Reinsdorf because the White Sox organization would not share in the revenue and the new amenities could cut into concessions sales, Irmer alleges. Those revenues would have flown back into the public coffers, Irmer maintains.

Meanwhile, the public contribution to the baseball organization totals about $400 million, Irmer claims.

Reinsdorf tried to have Irmer fired on at least one previous occasion, she claims. The suit claims that in 2008 Reinsdorf lobbied then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich for her removal. It was all but a done deal, though it never came to fruition because Blagojevich was arrested several days later.

But matters between Irmer, Reinsdorf and Thompson came to a head again on April 25, 2011, several days before Irmer had a meeting scheduled to discuss ISFA financing with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the suit states.

According to the complaint, Irmer arrived at work but found she was locked out of her office. The former governor and one of his staffers were waiting for her. They told her she could resign or she would be forcibly removed from her position by the board. She refused, and on April 27th was fired, according to the suit.

“This termination was motivated by Reinsdorf’s and Thompson’s fear that Perri Irmer would be successful in creating political pressure to reform the way that the ISFA does business,” the suit states.

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