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Jury awards $1.6 million to sheriff’s employees who claim they were unfairly demoted

A federal jury awarded $1.6 million Tuesday to 21 Cook County sheriff’s employees who claimed they were demoted by Sheriff Tom Dart for supporting his main opponent in the 2006 election.

The employees were members of the jail’s now-disbanded Special Operations Response Team and supported Richard Remus in his losing campaign, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

They accused Dart of retaliating against them by getting rid of their unit and creating the Emergency Response Team, whose members were less qualified to perform the same work, according to their attorney, Dana Kurtz. The new unit was created two weeks after the 2006 election solely for political purposes, the lawsuit said. The plaintiffs said they were demoted, harassed and subjected to unfair discipline.

Dart said he plans to appeal and that there’s “not one shred of evidence” that he politically retaliated against the plaintiffs. “This decision has always been about holding employees accountable for their actions and doing what is right,” he said Tuesday.

Dart emphasized that of the 21 plaintiffs, six were accepted onto the new unit, six did not apply and the rest were deemed unqualified.

SORT was under a cloud for an alleged mass beating of inmates in the jail in 1999. And in 2010, Dart announced that an investigation found seven jail guards who supported Remus were behind a plot to allow six inmates to escape in 2006 to embarrass then-Sheriff Mike Sheahan and Dart, who was Sheahan’s chief of staff and was running to succeed his

boss. One guard was criminally charged in the case and six others were suspended. Remus, a former head of SORT, has denied any involvement in a jailbreak plot.

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