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Emanuel pays more to settle suits vs. city — hopes to save in long run

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

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Updated: October 25, 2013 6:03AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shelled out $169 million to settle lawsuits against the city — $77.4 million of it this year alone — nearly triple the amount paid by cash-strapped Chicago during the final two years of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.

Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton attributed the spike at a time when the city can least afford it to two factors: Daley’s decision to “put the brakes” on settlements and Emanuel’s desire to cut the city’s losses and settle early cases taxpayers were destined to lose.

The tab under Emanuel rises to $247.4 million when you factor in the $78.4 million Chicago borrowed last year to compensate 6,000 African-American would-be firefighters bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 entrance exam.

The Law Department did not include those damages in its response to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Freedom of Information request on grounds that it stemmed from “a court ruling — not a case we decided to settle” and because the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision pre-dated Emanuel.

“When the mayor took office, we had a very large backlog of cases, most of which had been pending for a long time, and a number of which were very serious exposures,” Patton said, noting that Emanuel inherited 1,000 police cases alone.

“We’re settling cases we inherited. . . . In addition, we’ve accelerated the recognition of liability. So, we’re getting it on both ends. We’re clearing a lot of brush and bad things away from the past and doing something that will save money over the longer haul. But, it’s not saving us money short-term.”

Patton was hardpressed to explain why Emanuel set aside just $27.3 million to settle lawsuits for all of 2013 when he knew taxpayers were being squeezed at both ends. That guarantees more borrowing, compounding the cost.

In mid-July, Moody’s Investors ordered an unprecedented triple-drop in the city’s bond rating, citing Chicago’s “very large and growing” pension liabilities, “significant” debt service payments, “unrelenting public safety demands” and historic reluctance to raise local taxes that has continued under Emanuel.

“There’s no question what was budgeted for this year has been eclipsed by what we’ve actually spent. ... The justification would be looking at historical averages,” Patton said.

“My hope is that, when we clean up the old and do some of the things that reduce the new, that $27 million number will be sustainable.”

Many of the Daley “legacy” cases were tied to police abuse in general and torture allegations involving now convicted former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge in particular.

Burge cases account for $34.4 million or 44.3 percent of the payments made this year and 25 percent of the settlements authorized since Emanuel took office.

They include the $12.3 million authorized last week to compensate two men who spent 21 years in prison for a 1988 murder of five they did not commit after one of them was tortured into making a false confession.

After that City Council vote, Emanuel apologized for the police torture of African-American suspects under Burge that has severely undermined the trust between citizens and police in the black community.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys welcomed the heartfelt apology they never got from Daley. But, they also demanded that the city establish a $20 million fund — the amount spent to defend Burge and his cohorts — to compensate torture victims who couldn’t sue, either because of a city “cover-up” or because the statute of limitations had run out.

Patton made it clear that demand is going nowhere.

“It would be very difficult to justify spending taxpayer dollars to settle a claim that’s barred,” Patton said.

The corporation counsel also denied that the city settled with Ronald Kitchen and Marvin Reeves to spare Daley the embarrassment of having to answer questions under oath about allegations that — as state’s attorney and as mayor — he failed to investigate police torture allegations against Burge and his detectives and participated in a conspiracy to cover it up.

“I’m not going to pay more money to avoid somebody having to give testimony. I don’t care who it is. I wouldn’t do that if it was the current mayor — the guy I report to,” Patton said.

Seventeen other cases have been confirmed by the Torture Commission and two more Burge cases are in final court proceedings.

But, the corporation counsel insisted that, over time, his strategies will pay dividends.

To underscore the point, his staff estimated a $30 million savings compared to “projected damages” from 33 cases settled recently, 20 of them filed since Emanuel took office.

Patton also pointed to the fact that no class-action lawsuits were filed by protestors at the 2012 NATO Summit.

Police made just 121 arrests after researching the last 15 major national security events — and changing tactics — to avoid a repeat of the $12 million in damages and attorneys fees paid to 900 Iraq War protestors arrested and detained after a 2003 demonstration that shut down Lake Shore Drive.

“You never get credit for the suits you avoid,” Patton said.

Yet another example is the $2 million in damages and $1.7 million in attorneys fees authorized last week to compensate dozens of women denied jobs as Chicago firefighters jobs because of a discriminatory test of physical abilities that had nothing to do with the job.

Instead of fighting the case for 17 years, as Daley did in the case filed by black firefighters, Emanuel scrapped the unfair fitness test and quickly settled the case.

“If it’s a bad case and you’re going to owe money on it, the longer you wait, the more you owe,” the corporation counsel said.


Twitter: @fspielman

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