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Former 12th Ward employee sues city, Ald. Cardenas; says she was fired after talking to FBI

A woman has filed lawsuit against Ald. George Cardenas (12th) city Chicago claiming she was fired after talking FBI about

A woman has filed a lawsuit against Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and the city of Chicago, claiming she was fired after talking to the FBI about an investigation it was conducting into the alderman's office. | Sun-Times File Photo

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Updated: June 19, 2014 10:12PM

A former 12th Ward worker is suing the city and Ald. George Cardenas (12th), claiming she was unjustly terminated in May after she answered FBI questions about “illegal hiring practices and other illegal operations” in Cardenas’ office.

Maria Chavez, who worked in the 12th Ward Public Service Office from May 3, 2003 until May 2, 2014, filed the lawsuit Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging, among other things, that the city and Cardenas violated the Illinois Whistleblower Act.

The lawsuit claims the city’s Inspector General initially received complaints that Cardenas was using city property and city employees to gather voters’ signatures and notarize petition sheets for his 2012 reelection.

The Inspector General’s office interviewed most of the 12th Ward public service office’s employees at that time, according to the suit.

Reached Thursday night, Cardenas said he has never been contacted by the FBI.

“This is nothing more than a smear tactic,” he said of the lawsuit. “ I am not, nor have I ever been, part of any federal investigation, ever.”

The lawsuit alleges that in 2013, Cardenas’ office advised workers that the alderman was “displeased” with a number of employees who provided information to the Inspector General’s office related to the political activity allegations and investigation.

In January 2014, according to the lawsuit, Chavez and the other workers signed an Acknowledgement of Receipt and Review of Employee Guidelines form, indicating that “all internal matters including conversations, memoranda, information and material of any description are strictly confidential,” the suit claims.

About 7:30 p.m. on May 1, two FBI agents came to Chavez’ home and questioned her for more than two hours regarding the activities and communications of Cardenas in and out of the office, the suit alleges.

According to the suit, the FBI was investigating Cardenas for “illegal hiring practices and other illegal operations of the 12th Ward Public Service Office.” Chavez claims she told the FBI everything she knew.

On May 2, when she informed Cardenas and other employees of the FBI agents’ visit to her home, she was subsequently fired, the suit alleges.

But Cardenas said Thursday night that Chavez was given the choice of either resigning or being terminated because of “potential ethics violations” that members of his staff reported to the inspector general.

“My staff did the right thing ... And as a result this person was visited by the FBI,” he said. “I was nowhere near any of that.”

The three-count suit alleges violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act, violation of the Chicago Ethics Ordinance and retaliatory discharge. Chavez is seeking back pay and at least $100,000 in damages.

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