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County pays $230k to settle lawsuit brought by ex-staffer for Peraica

Former Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica.

Former Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica.

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Updated: October 23, 2012 6:12AM

Terrence Austin was a friend and staffer for ex-Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica — until Austin was fired after being brought up on drug charges.

But now Cook County taxpayers are on the hook for a $230,000 legal settlement after Austin sued for wrongful termination.

Although the incident happened back in 2005, Austin is still seething over what happened to him and how he says he was treated by Peraica.

“Tony Peraica is spineless and it was the biggest mistake in my life getting involved with Tony Peraica,” Austin told the Sun-Times. “I worked with Tony Peraica in his campaign for many years. You would think this guy would [have been] a little more stand-up.”

The two had once been friends and political allies: Austin had been an influential behind-the-scenes player in area politics and ran Peraica’s failed 1998 campaign for Cook County treasurer. He joined Peraica’s staff in 2002, but before that had worked in the county’s facilities management office.

Austin, 49, doesn’t dispute that he was charged with possessing a hypodermic needle and other drug paraphernalia after police were called to his Bridgeview apartment in July 2005. Authorities who had been summoned by someone inside the apartment found Austin inside without a pulse. Austin was hospitalized.

But Austin said he’s diabetic and used needles like the one found by police to administer insulin.

“I had a high [blood] sugar count,” Austin said.

He said the drug-related charges against him were dropped and his arrest record was “expunged.” (The case couldn’t be found in a check of criminal court records and a Bridgeview police spokesman couldn’t say what happened.)

But after the arrest, Peraica suspended Austin, and a month later, fired him — a move that Austin and his attorneys claimed violated federal law.

The lawsuit claimed Peraica shouldn’t have terminated him before the case was resolved.

“They should have waited, they should have said, hey — there’s innocence until proven guilty,” Austin said. “But they didn’t. Peraica jumped the gun.”

Earlier this month, county commissioners signed off on the settlement but did not admit wrongdoing. Austin said taxpayers wouldn’t be shelling over the money if the county and his boss had exercised a little more caution.

Reached Friday, Peraica, a suburban Republican known for long speeches during county meetings, had little to say about the settlement.

“I don’t want to comment on the settlement. I wish him all the best,” Peraica said.

Peraica, too, no longer works for the county: he lost his county board seat in the 2010 election to Democrat Jeff Tobolski. An attorney, he continues practicing law.

As for Austin, last year he got a $75,000-a-year job with the state of Illinois in its contract compliance office. “I’m glad to move on, and I’m glad to [be] rid [of] Tony Peraica,” Austin said.

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